Revealed: The secret push to bury a weedkiller’s link to Parkinson’s disease

Internal documents from chemical giant Syngenta reveal tactics to sponsor sympathetic scientific papers and mislead regulators about unfavorable research

The global chemical giant Syngenta has sought to secretly influence scientific research regarding links between its top-selling weedkiller and Parkinson’s, internal corporate documents show.

While numerous independent researchers have determined that the weedkiller, paraquat, can cause neurological changes that are hallmarks of Parkinson’s, Syngenta has always maintained that the evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is “fragmentary” and “inconclusive”.

But the scientific record they point to as proof of paraquat’s safety is the same one that Syngenta officials, scientists and lawyers in the US and the UK have worked over decades to create and at times, covertly manipulate, according to the trove of internal Syngenta files reviewed by the Guardian and The New Lede.

The files reveal an array of tactics, including enlisting a prominent UK scientist and other outside researchers who authored scientific literature that did not disclose any involvement with Syngenta; misleading regulators about the existence of unfavorable research conducted by its own scientists; and engaging lawyers to review and suggest edits for scientific reports in ways that downplayed worrisome findings.

The files also show that Syngenta created what officials called a “Swat team” to be ready to respond to new independent scientific reports that could interfere with Syngenta’s “freedom to sell” paraquat. The group, also referred to as “Paraquat Communications Management Team”, was to convene “immediately on notification” of the publication of a new study, “triage the situation” and plan a response, including commissioning a “scientific critique”.

A key goal was to “create an international scientific consensus against the hypothesis that paraquat is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease,” the documents state.

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Top US chemical firms to pay $1.2bn to settle water contamination lawsuits

DuPont and two related companies said they would pay close to $1.2bn to settle liability claims brought by public water systems serving the vast majority of the US population on Friday, just days before the start of a bellwether trial in South Carolina over PFAS contamination.

PFAS maker 3M was reportedly also considering a settlement that would keep the company from having to face allegations that it was responsible for knowingly contaminating drinking water supplies around the United States.

The trial set to start on Monday is expected to shine a light on long-held secret documents about the chemical giant 3M’s knowledge of the dangers of its per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 3M has previously announced it will exit PFAS production by 2025.

DuPont and its related companies were recently severed from the case, as they negotiated the settlement in which DuPont will pay roughly $400m ; Chemours, a DuPont spinoff, will pay $592m; and another DuPont-related company, Corteva, will pay about $193m.

The companies said the settlement excludes personal injury claims due to alleged exposure to PFAS, as well as claims by state attorneys general about PFAS contamination of natural resources.

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California researchers link popular weedkiller to health problems in young adults

Children exposed to a weedkiller commonly used in farming, as well as on residential yards and school playgrounds, appear to be at increased risk for liver inflammation and metabolic disorders in young adulthood and more serious diseases later in life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. 

The paper was authored by 12 California scientists and health researchers – most from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health – and is the latest of many studies linking glyphosate herbicide to human health problems. 

Glyphosate is better known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products as well as scores of other weedkilling brands sold around the world. The chemical is considered the most widely used herbicide in history, and residues are commonly present in food and water, as well as in human urine. The chemical is so pervasive that government researchers have documented it in rainfall.

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Revealed: the US is averaging one chemical accident every two days

Mike DeWine, the Ohio governor, recently lamented the toll taken on the residents of East Palestine after the toxic train derailment there, saying “no other community should have to go through this”.

But such accidents are happening with striking regularity. A Guardian analysis of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by non-profit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening consistently across the country.

By one estimate these incidents are occurring, on average, every two days.

“These kinds of hidden disasters happen far too frequently,” Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of land and emergency management during the Obama administration, told the Guardian. Stanislaus led programs focused on the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites, chemical plant safety, oil spill prevention and emergency response.

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An “urgency to this” – microplastics posing human health risks, report warns

Growing plastic pollution not only poses a threat to wildlife and the environment, but increasingly also to human health due to pervasive microscopic plastic particles that people are ingesting through their diet, according to a research report released Monday.

These microplastics appear to be contributing to fertility problems and poor respiratory health, and to induce biological changes that can lead to cancer in the digestive track, according to the findings.

Microplastics – generally defined as particles smaller than 5 mm (5,000 microns) – result from the breakdown of larger plastic products as well as from the manufacture of miniscule plastics used in cosmetics, industrial cleaners and other products. Most first-generation plastics are made from fossil fuels.

Though there is little research on the human health impacts of microplastics, human exposure has been well documented in recent years. Microplastics have been found in stool samples of people around the world as well as in blood samples and in human lungs.

“There is an urgency to this,” said Tracey Woodruff, professor and director of  the University of California San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), which helped lead the review of nearly 2,000 studies that formed the basis for the new report.

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Biden misses the point on cancer fight

In President Biden’s state of the union address Tuesday night, he pledged his devotion to a fierce “fight against cancer,” invoking a heart-tugging story of baby “Ava,” who began battling kidney cancer at the age of 1.

Biden spoke of a reignited “Cancer Moonshot” search for a cure for cancers that are impacting far too many lives, and of measures to cut healthcare costs to make treating cancer more affordable. He outlined an ambitious goal to cut cancer death rates by at least 50% in the next 25 years, and to “turn more cancers from death sentences to treatable diseases, provide more support for patients and their families.”

But nowhere in his lengthy prime-time address did Biden speak of working to rein in the vast, virtually unchecked, flood of environmental chemical contaminants that scientists say cause cancer.

A new book scheduled for release in May written by journalist Kristina Marusic lays out in stark terms how already-staggeringly highly rates of cancer are sure to continue to climb if we don’t slash our exposure to the chemicals known to cause cancer.

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People exposed to weedkiller chemical have cancer biomarkers in urine – study

New research by top US government scientists has found that people exposed to the widely used weedkilling chemical glyphosate have biomarkers in their urine linked to the development of cancer and other diseases.

The study, published last week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, measured glyphosate levels in the urine of farmers and other study participants and determined that high levels of the pesticide were associated with signs of a reaction in the body called oxidative stress, a condition that causes damage to DNA.

Oxidative stress is considered by health experts as a key characteristic of carcinogens.

The authors of the paper – 10 scientists with the National Institutes of Health and two from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – concluded that their study “contributes to the weight of evidence supporting an association between glyphosate exposure and oxidative stress in humans”.

They also noted that “accumulating evidence supports the role of oxidative stress in the pathogenesis of hematologic cancers”, such as lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia.

“Oxidative stress is not something you want to have,” said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. “This study increases our understanding that glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer.”

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EPA unveils new proposed air pollution standard; some say it falls short

US officials said Friday that they are moving to strengthen a key air quality standard, acknowledging a wealth of scientific evidence that demonstrates the dire health dangers posed by air pollution – and the lack of adequate protection provided by current US standards.

Promising “transformative” change, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan announced an agency proposal that would tighten the current air quality standard for what is commonly referred to as PM2.5, defined as fine particulate matter that is less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers (mm) in diameter.

The agency proposal falls woefully short of recommendations by the World Health Organization, and some critics expressed disappointment in the effort. But other observers applauded the move. 

“All decreases are good and will have health benefits,” said Scott Weichenthal, a researcher at McGill University in Canada who specializes in evaluating environmental risk factors for chronic diseases. “Larger decreases are better but there are practical realities that the EPA has to consider, and this is a move in the right direction.” 

People are exposed to these harmful fine particles, known simply as soot, through a variety of common sources, including industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and wildfire smoke. Soot exposure is known to contribute to a range of health problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The fine particulate matter can penetrate a person’s lungs and move into the blood stream, impacting other organs. Lower-income communities and people of color are seen at particular risk.

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Secret files suggest chemical giant feared weedkiller’s link to Parkinson’s disease

For decades, the Swiss chemical giant Syngenta has manufactured and marketed a widely used weedkilling chemical called paraquat, and for much of that time the company has been dealing with external concerns that long-term exposure to the chemical may be a cause of the incurable brain ailment known as Parkinson’s disease.

Syngenta has repeatedly told customers and regulators that scientific research does not prove a connection between its weedkiller and the disease, insisting that the chemical does not readily cross the blood-brain barrier, and does not affect brain cells in ways that cause Parkinson’s.

But a cache of internal corporate documents dating back to the 1950s reviewed by the Guardian suggests that the public narrative put forward by Syngenta and the corporate entities that preceded it has at times contradicted the company’s own research and knowledge.

And though the documents reviewed do not show that Syngenta’s scientists and executives accepted and believed that paraquat can cause Parkinson’s, they do show a corporate focus on strategies to protect product sales, refute external scientific research and influence regulators.

In one defensive tactic, the documents indicate that the company worked behind the scenes to try to keep a highly regarded scientist from sitting on an advisory panel for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency is the chief US regulator for paraquat and other pesticides. Company officials wanted to make sure the efforts could not be traced back to Syngenta, the documents show.

And the documents show that insiders feared they could face legal liability for long-term, chronic effects of paraquat as long ago as 1975. One company scientist called the situation “a quite terrible problem” for which “some plan could be made”.

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Popular weedkiller Roundup on trial again as cancer victims demand justice

Cancer has taken an unrelenting toll on 72-year-old Mike Langford. After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in 2007 he suffered through five recurrences despite multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Now he struggles with chemo-related neuropathy in his arms and legs, and new tests show the cancer is back.

Langford blames his cancer on his longtime use of the popular weed-killing product Roundup, which he applied countless times over decades using a backpack sprayer around his five-acre California property and a vacation lake home. He alleges in a lawsuit that Monsanto, the longtime Roundup maker now owned by the German company Bayer AG, should have warned of a cancer risk.

Last month, a San Francisco judge ruled that Langford’s health is so poor that he is entitled to a speedy hearing of his claims. A trial is set for 7 November in San Francisco county superior court.

“I’ve had it so long. I’m very angry,” Langford told the Guardian a day after doctors biopsied an enlarged lymph node. “The future doesn’t look too terribly promising,” he said, trying to hold back tears. He learned last week that the preliminary biopsy results show a return of NHL.

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