In summary

The herbicide paraquat is banned in dozens of countries due to its well-documented links to Parkinson’s disease and cancer, yet the U.S. and California still allow it.

Guest Commentary written by

Jonathan Evans

Jonathan Evans

Jonathan Evans is the environmental health legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

J.W. Glass

J.W. Glass

J.W. Glass is the EPA policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

No poison better exemplifies the chemical industry’s ironclad control over U.S. oversight of pesticides than the ongoing use of paraquat.

The toxic herbicide has been banned in 58 countries due to its well-documented links to Parkinson’s disease, cancer and reproductive health. Yet in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency last year reapproved paraquat for another 15 years, sanctioning the annual use of more than 10 million pounds on crops like citrus, almonds, artichokes, garlic, pears, strawberries and grapes.

Nowhere are paraquat’s harms more concerning than in California where farmers used more than 1.3 million pounds of the pesticide in 2018, with over three-quarters used in eight San Joaquin Valley counties alone.

Agricultural communities are at greater risk of inhaling paraquat because the herbicide can volatilize or spread on airborne dust. California researchers have known for years that paraquat use in the state’s agricultural areas, especially in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, leads to increased risks of Parkinson’s disease. In July, a research team at UCLA found increased risks of thyroid cancer associated with paraquat in those same counties.

Earlier this month, a coalition including conservation and public health groups, Parkinson’s researchers and clinicians, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation called on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to reevaluate the state’s approval of paraquat and ban its use statewide.

To understand why paraquat’s use is still allowed in the U.S., one must understand how the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, codified the pesticide industry’s control over its own regulation. Lawmakers failed to define what kinds of harmful effects were considered “unreasonable,” and enabled a feeble approval system that relies on potentially biased confidential research conducted by pesticide companies – research that can’t be independently vetted.

Thanks largely to the pesticide industry’s stranglehold on the EPA’s pesticide assessment process, nearly a third of the more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides used annually in the U.S. include 85 pesticides banned or being phased out in the European Union, China or Brazil, a 2019 study found.

Along with paraquat, that list of pesticides includes the cancer-linked, endocrine-disrupting herbicide called atrazine, which is banned in 44 countries but remains the second most popular pesticide in the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate amount of harm from FIFRA’s rubber stamps is shouldered by people of color. More than 20,000 U.S. farmworkers – most of them Latino – are poisoned by pesticides each year. The actual number of poisonings is likely much higher because there is no mandatory requirements for reporting.

And the harm doesn’t stop in the fields. A recent analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that 12 out of 14 biomarkers for harmful pesticide exposure were found in the blood and urine of Black or Latino residents at average rates five times higher than white residents. 

To close the most troublesome FIFRA loopholes, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker proposed updates to the law to ban the worst pesticides, including paraquat, and to better protect frontline and farmworker communities by upgrading reporting and enforcement of harmful pesticide exposures.

If passed, these important steps would end some of the most glaring threats permitted under FIFRA. 

But California has no reason to wait on potential changes to pesticide regulations at the federal level. State regulators should act immediately to ban paraquat and end the unacceptable health risks we know it poses to California’s agricultural heartland and our frontline communities.

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