Syngenta can't escape its secrets
Paraquat ties to Parkinson’s disease featured on Al Jazeera news
Evidence tying the popular weed killer paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is featured this week in an online news segment that includes fresh details about corporate influence over US regulators and suppression of scientific research. The piece includes some explosive comments from a former EPA scientist about regulatory corruption.
Al Jazeera’s investigative show Fault Lines highlights the reporting of The New Lede (TNL) and the thousands of internal corporate documents obtained by TNL that reveal decades of efforts by Syngenta, paraquat’s longtime manufacturer, to conceal evidence of how chronic exposure to paraquat can cause Parkinson’s disease.
Last month, the “Paraquat Papers” reporting by The New Lede was also the focus of an ABC News Nightline segment.
The New Lede, in collaboration with The Guardian, first revealed a trove of internal Syngenta documents in October 2022 and followed up in subsequent stories, exposing years of corporate efforts to cover up evidence that paraquat can cause Parkinson’s disease. The documents obtained by The New Lede additionally showed evidence of efforts to manipulate and influence the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published scientific literature. The documents also show how the company worked to mislead the public about paraquat dangers, among other secret strategies.
The Fault Lines piece adds to TNL reporting with several on-camera interviews, including one with Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta, a prominent researcher who has investigated paraquat impacts on brain cells. In the news segment, Cory-Slechta says that “there is a very strong and compelling body of evidence based on the epidemiology studies and what we know from animal models of Parkinson’s disease” that paraquat causes changes in the brain that lead to Parkinson’s.
As revealed by TNL reporting, Syngenta worked behind the scenes to keep Cory-Slechta from sitting on an EPA advisory panel, deeming her as a threat to paraquat. Company officials wanted to make sure the efforts could not be traced back to Syngenta, the documents obtained by TNL show.
Notably, the Fault Lines segment airs a first-ever interview with retired EPA scientist Karen McCormack, who worked at the EPA for 40 years before retiring in 2018. McCormack says on camera that the EPA is not fulfilling its mission.
“In the last three decades that I have worked at EPA it has been very rare for a toxic pesticide to be taken off the market,” she told Fault Lines. “Just about every, every new pesticide application that is submitted to the agency is approved, no matter how high the risk,” McCormack says in the news segment. That means paraquat and “a lot of other toxic pesticides” are allowed on the market, she said.
“Pesticide companies and their congressmen have tremendous influence on EPA’s decisions,” she said.
A transcript of Fault Lines’ complete interview of McCormack shows that she said much more about corporate influence over EPA than made it into the final show. The following are additional comments made by McCormack related to corporate influence over EPA:
“Regulatory capture is rampant at EPA, and I don’t think people even realize that they’re being captured,” McCormack said. “And I have seen a number of very good scientists who become frustrated with this organization, and they leave either the pesticide program or they’ll leave the agency entirely. And it’s it’s unfortunate that this happens.”
McCormack said it “can be detrimental for someone’s career at EPA” to speak up about data that shows a pesticide is potentially not safe to use.
“The consequences are not good. And I think that’s why many people don’t go down that pathway,” she said, according to the transcript. “If you do decide to work for the [EPA] pesticide program and you go up against the agricultural interest, it will not be good for your career.”
“The pesticide representatives that I have met are very sophisticated. They’re very charming. They want to be your friend and they want to help you with the work that you do. And unfortunately, some people fall for the charm offensive and become friends with the pesticide companies. It’s a big problem at EPA,” she added.
Thousands of people with Parkinson’s are suing Syngenta as well as former paraquat distributor Chevron.
The plaintiffs claim scientific research shows that exposure to paraquat significantly increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease, but instead of warning users the companies prioritized paraquat sales over human health.
Syngenta and Chevron deny paraquat causes Parkinson’s and are fighting the lawsuits. The companies say the weight of scientific evidence demonstrates no causal link between the chemical and the disease.
Paraquat is one of the most widely used weed killing chemicals in the world, competing with herbicides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand, for use in agriculture. As weeds have become more resistant to glyphosate, paraquat popularity has surged.
US government data shows that the amount of paraquat used in the United States has more than tripled between 1992 and 2018.
Parkinson’s disease has also been on the rise. The incurable disease is one of the world’s fastest-growing neurological disorders with prevalence more than doubling from 1990 to 2015. The disease is expected to continue to expand rapidly, impacting millions of people around the world.