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What Will It Take for the EPA to Ban a Pesticide Linked to Parkinson’s?

Over 60 years since Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency still can’t seem to bring itself to curtail products like Roundup or paraquat.

An agricultural vehicle drives through a crop field.
A farmer spreads pesticide on a field in Centreville, Maryland, on April 25, 2022.

Pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, have “the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should be called … ‘biocides.’”

Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement. But more than six decades later, we are still struggling to heed her warning. Farmlands and lawns in the United States are drenched in about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently reapproved paraquat, a toxic herbicide, even though a group of environmental and public health groups have been suing the agency for ignoring multiple studies showing paraquat exposure increases a person’s odds of developing Parkinson’s disease. That’s in addition to paraquat’s short-term effects, which can include heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, and lung scarring if even a small amount of it is ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC fact sheet on paraquat includes the striking recommendation that if you get any on your clothes you should cut the affected garment off your body—because it is too dangerous to pull it over your head and risk ingesting paraquat—and see a doctor immediately. The company that sells paraquat, according to documents leaked to The Guardian in 2022, has known about possible long-term neurological effects since 1975 and deliberately downplayed them.

What’s particularly grim about the paraquat decision is that it was Rachel Carson’s writing—and the environmental movement her book helped to inspire—that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, precisely to stem the flood of poisons she warned about. As Richard Nixon envisioned it, studying and regulating the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was one of the new agency’s major tasks. Then, in 1972, Congress greatly strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, creating a much stricter regulatory framework for the EPA to follow.

Over the last half-century, however, industry has grown ever more adept at creating and widening loopholes in that framework. The EPA also doesn’t make full use of its power. For example, despite having enormous authority to protect endangered species, the agency has never studied the impact of a pesticide on an endangered animal or plants prior to approving its use. When other organizations and government agencies have studied the effect of pesticides on biodiversity, they’ve concluded that the harm is staggering; a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that just two widely used pesticides alone posed an existential threat to some 1,300 species.

Another example is the agency’s struggle to curb Roundup, a weed killer that has proved extremely dangerous to humans. Roundup contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has described as “probably carcinogenic.” In 2022, the CDC found that 80 percent of urine samples taken from U.S. adults and kids had traces of glyphosate in them. A follow-up by CDC and National Institutes of Health scientists found that people with glyphosate in their urine also have cancer biomarkers in their urine. 

Bayer, the company that owns the agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto, which makes Roundup, has faced numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s toxic health effects. Courts have often ruled in favor of the company, but Bayer has spent billions settling many of the lawsuits, and more cases are currently proceeding. Plaintiffs have been winning some of them. Last week an appeals court in Georgia turned down Bayer’s effort to dismiss a suit arguing that Roundup caused cancer, and the previous week, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion to a man who developed lymphoma after using the product on his own property for decades.

Here again, the EPA has not been of much help and seems markedly less concerned than other U.S. government agencies. The EPA in 2020 said Roundup posed no “risks of concern to human health.”

For decades, an anti-regulatory ideology has seeped into our government like atrazine leaching into our groundwater. But the EPA’s problems are more directly a result of deliberate interference by industry. Agribusiness spends heavily on lobbying the EPA and on extensive strategies to compromise research at the agency, according to exhaustive reporting by the Intercept in 2021.  

But recent weeks have shown that the United States isn’t the only government struggling to regulate these poisons, 60 years after Rachel Carson’s death. The European Union announced that it was dropping an ambitious plan to cut pesticide use in half, following weeks of disruptive protests by farmers across Europe using tractors to block highways and railways and burning hay bales and tires. The farmers argued that the new rules would mire them in bureaucracy and hurt their businesses. Death threats and right-wing disinformation on the topic didn’t help matters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announcing the decision to abandon the bill, described the effort to reduce pesticides as “worthy” but said that it had become “a symbol of polarization.” 

Those still hoping, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to stanch the flow of toxins, can claim some recent victories and momentum. Those most harmed by pesticides—from human babies to honeybees—are widely loved. It’s always politically fruitful to evoke that love, as Carson did when she confronted us with the threat of silencing some of our favorite sounds: the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in our streams. That’s probably why in December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, not usually a politician feared by earth-ravaging special interests, signed the Birds and Bees Protection Act, prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds and pollinators, as well as other wildlife. Beekeepers in Vermont are pushing for a similar law.

We have known about the damage from pesticides for such a long time—even longer than we’ve known about global warming. These “biocides” are every bit as dangerous as Rachel Carson once described, and our knowledge of their harms has only grown more horribly specific. It’s decades past time for our governments to choose life over disease, suffering, and death.