Guest column: Syngenta’s paraquat product kills weeds, but also people
By Jon Heylings
From 1986 until 2008, I worked as the lead scientist on a project aimed at creating a “safer” paraquat-based weed killing product for what was then known as the ICI Central Toxicology Laboratory, which became part of Syngenta AG in 2000.
As the active ingredient in the Gramoxone brand, paraquat has been a widely used herbicide in agricultural and non-agricultural settings now for more than 50 years. Lawyers in the United States are currently suing Syngenta, alleging that paraquat exposure causes Parkinson’s disease. The lawsuits allege Syngenta disregarded the risks of Parkinson’s to its users and failed to warn them of the danger.
In my role at Syngenta and its predecessor I had a different concern, one that remains unresolved all these years later: Paraquat has been responsible for thousands of deaths around the world and the threat remains because of what regulators and acknowledge to be true – even a small amount of the chemical causes acute oral poisoning and can be fatal. While some people have used paraquat as an agent for suicide, others, including small children, have died accidentally following just a sip of the weed killer.
As long ago as 1990, I presented a case to the senior management of my former employer that the emetic agent added to Gramoxone to induce immediate vomiting in anyone ingesting the chemical had been added at an ineffective concentration. With my own research, I explained how we could increase the emetic in the formulation to induce immediate and effective vomiting. I pointed out to management that the concentration of the emetic agent used since the 1970s had been based on faulty science.
Doing what needed to be done to truly protect people from acute poisoning would have been costly, and it is clear to me that Syngenta has continued to use bad science to maintain the registrations of Gramoxone, including avoiding a 1982 Environmental Protection Agency threat to put paraquat on a list of pesticides the agency wanted removed from the market.
As a former employee of the company, it saddens me to have to go public on this. However, when I see how many children have died having taken just a sip of Gramoxone, mistaking it for a beverage, I feel I need to speak out. As little as 10 milliliters or a spoonful of Gramoxone will cause pulmonary failure and death, since there is insufficient emetic agent in the product to cause vomiting. Syngenta could have admitted their failures and fixed this a long time ago.
(In response to press reports about Heylings’ assertions, Syngenta has said that it “absolutely” rejects the accusations made, and its position is backed by “modern expert medical opinion.” The company also denies its product causes Parkinson’s disease.)
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of EWG or TNL editors.)