The herbicide paraquat was sold to farmers as revolutionary. Its introduction into the marketplace in 1962 coincided with a growing awareness of overplowing soil, year after year, until it degrades. Looking to avoid another Dust Bowl, farmers were eager for ways to keep their soil intact. Chevron, a distributor of paraquat at the time, jumped on this opportunity, claiming the chemical was necessary for “no-till” farming. The idea, as Chevron branded it, was relatively simple: You don’t need a plow when there’s a toxicant that can kill any weed, disrupting the very process of photosynthesis, prepping a field without moving the soil.
“Let paraquat be your plow,” a 1972 Chevron advertisement in No Till Farmer, the leading resource on no-till methods, urged soil-conscious farmers. The chemical giant’s marketing edict turned into practice. “Basically, no tillage means substituting the contact herbicide Paraquat for your plow and other tillage tools, in the preparation of your seed bed,” reads an educational pamphlet distributed by Chevron in 1979. In 1984, an op-ed in The New York Times by a Chevron representative proclaimed that “the plow has been replaced with the use of herbicides,” celebrating the “quiet revolution.”
There are many ways to effectively practice no-till farming, a suite of practices aimed at minimizing soil disturbance, and one that many farmers consider a key component to regenerative or “climate-smart” farming. Some no-till farmers don’t use herbicides, opting for tools like the roller crimper to manage weeds. But most farmers rely on herbicides to replace tillage, a form of weed control. And although glyphosate (aka Roundup) has become the herbicide of choice for most farmers practicing no-till, paraquat has hung on, in part because it kills weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate.
In fact, paraquat is still one of the most popular herbicides in the U.S., applied in the greatest quantities to fields of soybeans, cotton, and grapes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s also the deadliest pesticide used in U.S. agriculture, capable of killing a human with just a sip, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns. As far back as 1983, the journalist Andrew Revkin warned that “the potent weedkiller is killing people,” as he starkly detailed its link to suicides and accidental deaths. A considerable body of evidence links the toxicant to Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition with no cure.
Observing these dangers to life and health, more than 50 countries have now banned paraquat, including the E.U., U.K., China, and Brazil. Despite longtime calls for the EPA to ban paraquat, it remains legal on U.S. farms if those who apply it receive certified training, and it is often applied by farmworkers who have no say over its use. Yet, the next couple of years could prove to be critical for the future of paraquat, which has fallen under sharper scrutiny, as it faces a growing number of legal challenges.
“If [my Parkinson’s disease] had to do with paraquat, then they should pay dearly for that because it has helped to take the dignity out of my life.”
As of mid-March, more than 3,000 farmers with Parkinson’s disease have filed federal lawsuits against the herbicide’s former chief distributor Chevron and its lead manufacturer Syngenta, which sells it under the brand name Gramoxone in the U.S.. The lawsuits, which were consolidated to pool evidence, have led to a trove of hundreds of documents, published by The Guardian and The New Lede, including evidence that the companies knew—as early as the 1960s—about paraquat’s potential risks to the brain and feared the potential of lawsuits.
The first federal bellwether trial is set for October 2023, and it could result in payouts to affected farmers. There are also over 100 cases in California state courts, similarly consolidated, set to have a bellwether trial in June, as well as many individual cases filed in state courts across the country.
As the bellwether trials loom, the EPA’s analysis of paraquat’s risk is also under review. In 2021, the agency was challenged in a lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, for its interim reapproval of paraquat for another 15 years. The lawsuit claims that the agency “repeatedly understated the extent of paraquat’s adverse effects,” including dismissing its link to Parkinson’s. Prompted by the lawsuit, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the EPA’s request to revisit its analysis of the herbicide last December, which could potentially result in stricter safety guidelines or a full ban.
While the future of paraquat remains uncertain, it’s clear that the question of its regulation has reached an important juncture.
A plaintiff in the federal litigation, retired farmer Larry Wyles hopes that “the companies that produce this herbicide should be held responsible for whatever they are responsible for,” he said. “If [my Parkinson’s disease] had to do with paraquat, then they should pay dearly for that because it has helped to take the dignity out of my life.’”
Parkinson’s Deep Toll: ‘I Am a Shell of My Former Self’
Wyles, 79, first noticed the tremors in his left hand. He took it as a sign of stress and tried to ignore it for another six months. But the tremors wouldn’t let up, and he began having trouble keeping his balance while walking. He went to two neurologists, who gave him the same diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease.
“That was just the beginning,” said Wyles. Over the past 20 years, the neurological condition has come to affect his speech, his ability to walk, his vision, and his facial expressions. Once a celebrated basketball player and seasoned farmer, he now can hardly recognize himself. “I am a shell of my former self,” he added.
Not too long ago, Wyles happened upon a newspaper advertisement for a lawsuit linking paraquat to Parkinson’s. It was first time he had seen a connection drawn between the two. “I had no idea. None,” said Wyles, who first sprayed paraquat for his dad on his family’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania. After buying his own farm in 1972, growing hay, corn, and soybeans, he continued using paraquat as part of his no-till practice, a way to clear the fields of weeds and maintain his fencerows, without plowing.