GroundTruth Blog

New links between pesticides & Parkinson's

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by Medha Chandra

A new study from neurologists at UCLA adds to the growing scientific evidence showing an ever stronger link between exposure to pesticides and development of Parkinson’s disease.

This latest study documents how the fungicide benomyl triggers a cascade of events at the cellular level that increase the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s. The researchers say the findings clarify the role of naturally occurring enzymes in the brain, and may help in efforts to slow progression of the disease — even among those not exposed to pesticides. The study also confirms that avoiding pesticide exposure can only help.

This is the latest in a series of pesticide culprits such as paraquat, maneb and ziram that have been linked to Parkinson’s in people living and working in areas where these pesticides are used.

The exposures can do their damage years before the symptoms actually occur. Benomyl has been banned for years in the U.S., but the effects are still showing up. This long-term nature of the impacts also showed up in an earlier study by the neuroscientists at UCLA's School of Public Health.

Rural communities most at risk

Farmers and farmworkers are more at risk of developing Parkinson’s than others. A 2006 report, Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, pointed to environmental factors such as exposure to pesticides as strong determinants of developing Parkinson’s. 

A 2012 study by the Parkinson's Institute showed that the risks of developing Parkinson’s increased 11 times in people who worked with paraquat and also had a specific genetic variation. These are compelling numbers.

People not directly working with pesticides can also be affected. Those who are exposed near their homes and workplaces can develop Parkinson’s — as was documented in this 2011 study in California’s Central Valley. This important agricultural region has an inordinately high number of cases of Parkinson's, and as is noted in a Sierra Club's magazine article: "Some neurologists dub the 300-mile-long string of Central Valley farm towns between Bakersfield and Sacramento 'Parkinson's Alley.'"

A preventable problem

Parkinson’s, which has no known cure, is a chronic, progressive neurological disease characterized by tremors, rigidity or stiffness in the body, slowness of movement and impaired balance and coordination. 

The National Parkinson’s Foundation and Parkinson’s Action Network are among some key organizations advocating for better care of Parkinson’s patients and also to help shine a light on causes of Parkinson’s and paths to prevention. Nearly 60,000 people are diagnosed each year in the U.S. with Parkinson’s, and between 500,000 to 1.5 million Americans are estimated to be living with Parkinson's every day.

I had a close neighbor who suffered from Parkinson's. Remembering his progressively worsening condition over the years makes me ask this question in sadness and frustration: How many of these cases of Parkinson's in the U.S. are primarily a result of exposure to a cocktail of pesticides — and could have been avoided?

Medha Chandra's blog

is PAN's Campaign Coordinator and is the coordinator of PAN International’s Working Group on Pesticides and Corporations. Follow @ChandraMedha

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