UK farmers demand a ban on weedkillers because of Parkinson's concerns

British farmers have called for an end to the UK's production of the toxic weedkiller Paraquat.

UK farmers demand a ban on weedkillers because of Parkinson's concerns

British farmers have called for an end to the UK's production of the toxic weedkiller Paraquat. They claim that studies show it may be linked to the development of Parkinson's Disease. This comes as hundreds are suing Paraquat's manufacturer in the United States. They claim it knew of the danger and did not warn them.

Andy Pollard, a former farm manager, was able to leap into his tractor-cab. His limbs have become rigid and his body is prone to spasms. Parkinson's Disease has left him unable to control his movements.

He spent many years spraying herbicides in his yard and didn't know of any danger.

His wife Sue said that Paraquat was a great thing to use. "Andy would drive around the fields with the spray everywhere.

After initially thinking it was an accident that her only Parkinson's friends were farmers, she discovered the possible connection between the chemical and the disease.

"Why haven't they regulated it and stopped?" She asks. "We have a lot people in the same situation."

Paraquat was manufactured for the first time in the UK in early 1960s. It is now sold worldwide by 377 companies that have registered it.

Millions of farmers use it to eradicate weeds. It is one the most widely used and effective herbicides in the world. It is also dangerous and has been responsible for thousands of poisoning deaths.

Syngenta, the manufacturer of Paraquat, claims that there is no link between Parkinson's and Paraquat. It also states that it has been subject to more than 1,200 safety tests.

Andy visits a Dorset farm that Countrymen UK has established after John, Andy's father, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

On the farm, beef and lamb are sold on a 30-acre scale. A fleet of mobility scooters replaces tractors in the yard. Julie says that farmers don't come to the yard because they are ill, but because they want to continue living.

Parkinson's Disease is the most rapidly-growing neurological condition in the world. It affects neurons in a particular area of the brain, called the substantia nigra.

It causes progressive degenerative changes in the body, eventually leading to stiffness and tremors. Studies across the globe show that rural areas and agricultural areas are more likely to contract the disease than urban ones.

Julie explains that her childhood farm was owned and managed by the local council. Her father also had to comply with certain conditions. He had to use chemicals because too many dock leaves and thistles could mean that they could seize your money. Paraquat was the pesticide that all farmers used.

He would take a backpack with the chemical in it and spend hours spraying the fields. He would wear his sleeves up and have his arms open, with the liquid running down his arms.

John was in his 40s when he developed the illness and believed that there was some connection to the chemicals. He was further spooked when Ken Barnes, his neighbor, was diagnosed with the disease at the same time. Ken was also in his 40s but had been using Paraquat for many years.

Ken now visits Julie’s farm. Although he has a twinkle in one eye, his clarity of speech is gone. Sue, his wife, says that it is a terrible disease. "It's taken his life away."

She believes that its export and manufacture in the UK should be stopped. "I would not want my son, who has farming qualifications, to end up like his father."

Paraquat was not approved for use in the EU after a 2007 court ruling. This is the situation in the UK, even though it is not allowed for use in the EU since a 2007 court ruling. However, it is still manufactured at Syngenta's Huddersfield plant under the brand name Gramoxone. It is exported to the USA, Japan, and Australia with a fifth going to the developing countries.

Nearly 900 US farmers and field workers joined forces to sue Syngenta. They claim that there is a link between Paraquat, Parkinson's and Syngenta deliberately hiding the risks to their health from authorities.

Syngenta denies the claims in the multidistrict litigation case that remains, which will be heard by the court later this year.

According to the most recent financial statements, $187.5 million has been paid into a settlement fund. It stated that the company believes all these claims are unfounded and that the settlement payment is intended to stop further claims.

Professor Jon Heylings, toxicologist, worked for Syngenta for over 20 years. He retired and became a whistleblower. He has been an expert witness in US legal proceedings.

Farmers who did not use protective equipment should be concerned, as they could cause skin damage. He says, "If they went out and actually used it again the next morning, then you could absorb more Paraquat through your skin, into blood, and then to the brain."

"Is it causing Parkinson's disease when it gets into the brain?" This is one of the main issues surrounding the entire exposure. Who is responsible if the chemical causes Parkinson's?

There are many contradicting studies and no consensus scientifically regarding any possible link between Paraquat or Parkinson's.

Research charity Cure Parkinson's in the UK stated that exposure is "a well-recognised environment risk factor". However, Parkinson's UK claimed that studies only show a "small increased risk".

A 17-year-long US study concluded that Paraquat was responsible for Parkinson's progression and onset. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the US Department of Health, found that Paraquat users developed Parkinson's disease two-and-a half times more frequently than those who did not use it.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the USA, however, claims that an updated study could not replicate these results and that no clear link was made.

However, scientists believe Syngenta puts profit above product safety and public well-being.

Prof Heylings holds a Syngenta regulatory policy document that was written in 2003, when Paraquat was still being used locally by farmers. The author of the document acknowledges that there is a growing number studies "indicating a correlation between Parkinson's Disease incidence and herbicide use, including Paraquat".

He explained that Syngenta is trying to influence Paraquat researchers and influence the direction of research. Syngenta doesn't want to see a huge uproar about Parkinson's. The strategy was to minimize any possible neurotoxicity of Paraquat, which could cause Parkinson's.

It stated that Jon Heylings was technically not qualified to comment about Paraquat or Parkinson's Disease. He doesn't know about Syngenta research on the topic, which was conducted mainly after Heylings left the company in 2008. Paraquat, Parkinson's and other diseases were the subjects of our research. This figure does not include the value of expert time.

Syngenta stated in a statement that it had spent hundreds of millions to ensure safety over the product's lifetime.

"Paraquat was the subject of over 1,200 safety studies that were submitted to and reviewed by regulatory authorities around the globe. Paraquat's safety has been confirmed by recent thorough reviews conducted by science-based regulatory agencies, including Australia and the United States.

Claire Marshall Photos

The complete story can be viewed on Countryfile, BBC1 at 17:30 BST (3 April) and thereafter on the iPlayer.

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