Paraquat, also known by the brand name Gramoxone, is one of the most widely used industrial herbicides on the market. It’s also one of the most dangerous. Just one sip can prove deadly, and no antidote can save you, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns. Exposure to the weed killer through the skin or by inhalation can lead to Parkinson’s Disease years later. As a result, makers of paraquat are facing mounting lawsuits.
Paraquat is so dangerous that it is either banned or phased out in 32 countries worldwide. These countries include China, the European Union, and Brazil. It’s still used in the United States, though regulators have restricted it to commercial use only because of its toxicity.
Recent studies were conducted by the National Institute of Health’s Environmental Health Sciences and the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center. They found that people exposed to paraquat developed Parkinson’s disease up to 2.5 times more often than people who were not.
Despite these risks, companies like Syngenta and Growmark continue to make and sell the herbicide. The companies rake in profits topping $640 million in global sales in a single year.
What is paraquat?
Paraquat, also referred to as paraquat dichloride, was registered as an herbicide in the United States in 1964. Its primary use is to control grass and weeds in many agriculture and non-agriculture sites. Many farmers also apply the herbicide pre-harvest on some crops. Plants that have become resistant to Roundup and other glyphosate-containing weed killers are popular targets. Also, the chemical is sometimes doused on illegal marijuana crops in the United States and Mexico. Some people have become ill after smoking contaminated marijuana.
U.S. farmers currently use more than 8 million pounds each year. Farmers of such crops as peanuts, citrus, wheat, soy, corn, almonds, artichokes, garlic, pears, strawberries, grapes, sweet potatoes, and cotton use paraquat.
Is paraquat in the herbicide Roundup?
No, Monsanto’s Roundup does not contain paraquat. Roundup’s active ingredient is glyphosate. While exposure to glyphosate has been linked to cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, experts have linked paraquat exposure to Parkinson’s disease.
Why is paraquat restricted?
In 2016, the EPA restricted the use of paraquat. The goal was to minimize accidental ingestions and reduce exposure to workers who mix, load, and apply the herbicide. Those restrictions included:
- Requiring changes to the herbicide warning labels to highlight the toxicity and risks associated with paraquat products.
- Restricting use to certified pesticide applicators only. Use by individuals working under the supervision of a certified applicator is also prohibited.
- Requiring specialized training for certified applicators to emphasize that the chemical should neither be transferred to, nor stored in, improper containers.
- Requiring new closed-system packaging to prevent transfer or removal of the pesticide except directly into proper application equipment. This protects users from spills, mixing, pouring the pesticide into other containers, or other actions that could cause exposure.
In October 2020, the EPA proposed new measures to better protect human health and the environment from the dangers of paraquat. The measures include:
- Prohibiting aerial application for all uses except cotton desiccation.
- Prohibiting pressurized handgun and backpack sprayer application methods on the herbicide label.
- Limiting the maximum application rate for alfalfa.
- Requiring a closed cab or PF10 respirators if the area treated in a 24-hour period is 80 acres or less.
- Installing a residential area drift buffer and seven-day restricted entry interval for cotton desiccation.
- Requiring a 48-hour restricted entry for all crops and uses except cotton desiccation.
- Adding mandatory spray drift management label language.
Who is at risk for paraquat exposure?
Since paraquat is highly restricted, most people at risk for exposure are those who apply, mix, or load the weed killer, including:
- Farmers and farmworkers
- Agriculture workers
- Crop dusters
- Herbicide applicators
- Chemical mixers
- Tank fillers
In 1997, the EPA confirmed that the primary route of exposure to paraquat occurred during the weed killer’s preparation, application, and post-application. To minimize exposure risk, regulations require those who work with the highly toxic chemical to use chemical-resistant gloves made of barrier laminate, butyl rubber, nitrile rubber, neoprene rubber, natural rubber, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or Viton. All must be equal to or greater than 14 mils. Applicators also must use respiratory protection and safety glasses that include splash guards. Mixers and loaders must add a full-face shield and a chemical-resistant apron.
Paraquat isn’t available for household use, but the EPA also said that individuals who live near farms using paraquat risk exposure to the weed killer. In 2009, a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology backed up this finding, revealing that people who lived within 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) of paraquat use had a 75% increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Coincidentally, the American Parkinson Disease Association reported that individuals who met any of the following criteria were more likely to develop Parkinson’s:
- Farming as an occupation
- Exposure to farm animals
- Living on a farm
- Exposure to pesticides
- Well water drinking
- Living in a rural area
Paraquat Poisoning and Exposure Symptoms
Paraquat exposure can occur through ingestion, skin contact, or inhalation. In some cases, exposure to the herbicide can cause paraquat poisoning.
Paraquat Poisoning Symptoms
Ingesting paraquat causes paraquat poisoning. Symptoms of paraquat poisoning come on quickly and include:
- immediate damage to the mouth, throat, and intestines
- abdominal pain
Once the herbicide distributes to other parts of the body, paraquat poisoning causes toxic chemical reactions, primarily in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Within days to weeks, lung scarring and heart, kidney, and/or liver failure can occur. If a person survives–which rarely happens if the person ingests a large amount–they will likely suffer long-term or permanent lung damage and possibly damage to other organs.
This is most likely to occur if the skin exposure lasts for a long time, involves a concentrated version of paraquat, or appears on broken skin, such as on a sore, cut, or severe rash.
If inhaled, paraquat can cause lung damage. Even if immediate symptoms don’t occur, exposure by inhalation “can provide a direct route of entry to the brain,” said Timothy Anderson, a graduate student and first author of a study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences.
Anderson’s research investigated the inhalation of paraquat in laboratory mice. He found that prolonged exposure caused mice to lose at least some of their sense of smell: an early sign of Parkinson’s disease.
Paraquat and Parkinson’s Disease
Previous research has associated both paraquat and another common weed killer called Maneb with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. In 2018, researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario decided to look closely at this association. They found that low-level exposure to the pesticides disrupts cells in a way that mimics the effects of mutations known to cause Parkinson’s disease. “Adding the effects of the chemicals to a predisposition for Parkinson’s disease drastically increases the risk of disease onset,” they concluded.
A systematic review of paraquat-related literature conducted by researchers in 2019 also found that Parkinson’s occurrence was 25% higher in individuals exposed to the herbicide and even higher in those who were exposed to the chemical for more extended periods of time.
Another comprehensive study investigating exposure to 31 pesticides and their association with Parkinson’s risk found paraquat to be one of the most concerning weed killers among the group. Paraquat works by producing intracellular molecules that cause oxidative stress and damage cells. Interestingly, oxidative stress is a common theme in understanding what causes the death of nerve cells in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Yet another study revealed that people exposed to paraquat in their teens through young adult years had a 200% to 600% increased risk of developing Parkinson’s, depending on the overall number of years of exposure.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually and get worse over time. As the disease progresses, people can experience difficulty walking and talking. They may also experience mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, and memory difficulties. There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but medications and sometimes brain surgery can help improve symptoms.
Parkinson’s is caused by the breaking down and dying of certain nerve cells in the brain, called neurons. Many of the symptoms associated with the disorder are blamed on the loss of neurons that produce messengers called dopamine. Why this occurs remains a mystery. Researchers believe genetic mutations, environmental factors, and specific changes in the brain may play a role in developing Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
The four main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:
- Tremor in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, or neck
- Stiffness in the limbs and trunk
- Slow movements
- Impaired balance and coordination, which can make someone prone to falls
Other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:
- Emotional changes
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing, and speaking
- Urinary problems or constipation
- Skin problems
- Sleep disruptions
Paraquat Brand Names
Paraquat is manufactured by various agrichemical companies under different brand names. One of the most popular brands sold in the U.S. is Gramoxone SL 2.0 Herbicide, made by Swiss-based agrichemical corporation Syngenta. Chevron Corporation held the rights to sell paraquat in the 1960s under an agreement with a company that Syngenta eventually purchased.
Other paraquat trade names include:
- Para-SHOT 3.0
- Helmquat 3SL
- Cyclone SL 2.0
The Fight to Ban Paraquat
Every 15 years, the EPA reviews all herbicides to ensure they comply with federal safety standards. In 2017, the agency began its review of paraquat and has until October 2022 to decide on its future use. In July 2017, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) used this opportunity to inform the EPA about the dangers of the herbicide and its link to Parkinson’s.
In February 2019, the foundation submitted a petition to the environmental agency with more than 100,000 signatures calling for a ban on paraquat because of the dangers the toxic chemical poses to humans and the environment. “That petition was important because it not only communicated to the EPA the Parkinson’s community’s concerns, it also showed Congress that there is support across the U.S. for legislation like this,” the organization said.
The petition prompted U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) to introduce the Protect Against Paraquat Act of 2019, seeking to eliminate its use in the U.S. The Protect Against Paraquat Act was referred to the House Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research on August 9th, 2019, where it continues to await review.
Also, in 2019, the EPA conducted a human health risk assessment. Despite being a chemical so dangerous that regulations require those working with it to wear protective gear to avoid exposure, the agency determined that paraquat posed no dietary risks when used according to the label’s instructions.
In the report, the EPA also identified potential risks to workers who apply paraquat or enter treated fields after application and potential dangers from spray drift to bystanders at the edge of a treated field. Plus, the agency reviewed a “robust set of literature on paraquat exposure” which included more than 70 articles investigating health outcomes, including Parkinson’s disease.
Ultimately, the EPA decided against a ban and instead recommended additional mitigating measures to reduce potential exposure.
With more people becoming aware of the link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, lawsuits have been mounting against companies that manufacture the herbicide, including Syngenta and Growmark.
Paraquat lawsuit allegations include:
- Failure to adequately research the link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, and warn consumers
- Failure to ensure that workers received adequate protection against the potential side effects of paraquat
- Misrepresenting the safety of paraquat for decades
- Negligently disregarding the potential paraquat risks
Plaintiffs allege that the herbicide is defective and unreasonably dangerous and that exposure to paraquat likely causes neurological damage associated with Parkinson’s disease. Many of the lawsuits accuse paraquat manufacturers of failing to warn users about the risks associated with the weed killer.
The Unified Parkinson’s Advocacy Council urged the EPA to end the use of paraquat because of its connection to Parkinson’s disease.
Nature Chemical Biology published that paraquat kills cells through a mechanism called oxidative stress, which is linked to Parkinson’s disease.
EPA announced they would be exploring health risks with paraquat.
Genetic modification association of paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, a study published by Samuel M Goldman et al., revealed that individuals with certain genetic variations are 11 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s.
NIH FAME study published farmers using paraquat are 2 1/2 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s.
Environmental Health Perspectives published that Parkinson’s disease was “positively associated” with paraquat exposure.
American Journal of Epidemiology published findings suggesting exposure to paraquat within 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) of a home increases the Parkinson’s disease risk by 75%.
File a Paraquat Lawsuit
Beasley Allen’s environmental exposure lawyers are currently filing lawsuits related to Parkinson’s disease in farmers, agriculture workers, crop dusters, and anyone involved in the mixing, applying, or loading of paraquat. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after being exposed to paraquat, you may be entitled to compensation.
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