By Carey Gillam and Aliya Uteuova
When Illinois farmer Ron Niebruegge was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 55, he was certain it must be a mistake. Niebruegge had always been healthy and active, someone who loved horseback riding and taking his wife dancing on weekend nights.
But a dizzy spell and a fall in 2007 led him to visit a neurologist, and then another. Both doctors agreed that the little things Niebruegge had started to notice – a left arm that didn’t seem to work quite right, some stiffness in his joints – were undeniable signs of the onset of Parkinson’s, a progressive debilitating brain disease for which there is no cure.
Now 70 years old, Niebruegge lives a very different life: The horses he loved have been given away and the horse trailer sold. Dancing is a thing of the past; Niebruegge struggles simply to walk across a room. He uses a cane but falls so frequently and unexpectedly that he fears leaving home.
One recent fall left him with a dislocated shoulder that required surgery. And his wife of 49 years has transitioned from dance partner to caregiver.
Niebruegge is far from alone. More than 8 million people globally suffer from what scientists see as the fastest growing neurological disorder in the world. And while scientists see multiple toxins as potential causes, one pesticide popular with farmers across the US has been prominently linked to the disease: a weed killer called paraquat that has grown in use over recent decades.
The longtime manufacturer of paraquat, Syngenta AG, along with Chevron USA, the successor to a former US paraquat distributor, are now being sued by thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers. The plaintiffs claim scientific studies show that exposure to paraquat can cause, or significantly increase the risk of, Parkinson’s disease, but rather than warn users, the companies prioritized paraquat sales over human health.
Syngenta and Chevron deny paraquat causes Parkinson’s and are fighting the lawsuits. The companies say the weight of scientific evidence demonstrates no causal link between the chemical and the disease.
Still, internal documents obtained by The New Lede reveal that company insiders feared they could face legal liability for the long-term chronic effects of paraquat as long ago as 1975, and were preparing legal defenses years before the lawsuits were filed. (See that story.)
So many people have recently filed legal claims alleging paraquat caused them to develop Parkinson’s that the cases have been consolidated for oversight by a federal judge in Illinois and a state court judge in California. The first trial over the allegations is scheduled for February 27, 2023.
It is not clear if the trial will actually take place, however. Last year, Syngenta paid $187.5 million to settle many cases, according to a disclosure in the company’s 2021 financial statement.
Niebruegge, who is among those plaintiffs whose claims were settled, remembers paraquat as the “chemical of choice” in the 1970s and ‘80s when he and his father grew soybeans on 600 acres of farmland near the Mississippi River. He recalls getting the chemical on his hands and arms when spraying it, but didn’t worry too much about it.
His nephew now runs the family farm but stays away paraquat. “He’s definitely scared off of it,” Niebruegge said.
Scientists studying Parkinson’s say research shows genetics play only a small role in causation, and the majority of cases are considered to be triggered by environmental exposures. Along with paraquat and other pesticides, inhalation of small particles of toxins in polluted air is considered a cause of Parkinson’s disease by many scientists who study the issue.
The number of people suffering from Parkinson’s has more than doubled in the last 25 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and that rate of increase is forecast to continue. The disease is blamed for causing 329,000 deaths in 2019, an increase of more than 100% since 2000.
Parkinson’s symptoms develop when dopamine-producing neurons in the brain degenerate. Without sufficient dopamine production, the brain is not capable of transmitting signals between cells to control movement and balance. Victims can also lose their ability to speak normally and can suffer cognitive impairment. Without a way to stop or reverse the damage, Parkinson’s sufferers largely rely on medications to try to slow the progression of debilitation.
For Niebruegge, the loss of balance has become a constant threat, despite the fact that he takes five pills three times a day that are supposed to limit the effects of Parkinson’s. One recent fall left him with a dislocated shoulder that required surgery.
“The last year it has been progressing much faster,” Niebruegge said in an interview. “It can be very depressing to think about things you had hoped to do with your family and friends in the future, knowing that as the disease progresses you will become less able to do things with them and will become more of a burden.”
He has known at least four other area farmers with Parkinson’s and two have died, he said.
“This is a very difficult disease for people,” said Todd Sherer, executive vice president at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “Anything we can do to stop this at the beginning would be important.”
The rise of Parkinson’s comes not just with human costs, but also staggering financial costs, Sherer said. The US government alone spends nearly $25 billion each year on helping care for people with the disease, and total costs amount to over $51 billion annually, according to the foundation.
“A horrible disease”
Nebraska farmer Roger Danielson, 66, is still adjusting to the changes Parkinson’s has forced on his life after he was diagnosed with the disease in the spring of 2021. In addition to applying paraquat on farm fields, Danielson worked for more than a decade hauling loads of paraquat throughout the countryside, distributing the chemical for use by multiple farmers.
“Just about every spring, we loaded the trucks with it, loading it up from the top with the fumes coming out,” Danielson said. “I was in the mixing room where I had to open the valve and hook the hose to it, and pump it off the truck into tanks and it went out to be sprayed in the field.”
Danielson now has tremors, fatigue, and drags his feet when walking. His lawsuit against Syngenta and Chevron was filed in late September.
“I have sons-in-law who are farmers and grandkids who are farmers and I don’t want them to be exposed to that and have to go through the same stuff that I have,” Danielson said.
In Missouri, 68-year-old farmer Marcus Moore also wants others to know the risks. He used paraquat regularly for years to clear weeds from his fields before planting crops of cotton, wheat and soybeans. He didn’t worry about wearing gloves or covering his mouth and nose when using it, never imagining it may be linked to a chronic disease. Like Niebruegge, he also received a settlement from Syngenta and Chevron without going to trial.
“It has completely changed my life,” Moore said of the disease. He had to stop working, plagued by frequent body shakes. His balance is so poor that one day last month he fell three times.
“I used to love to hunt, deer hunting and duck hunting, and I used to play golf,” Moore said. “I don’t do any of that stuff anymore.”
He takes medication three times a day to try to limit the symptoms, but knows there is no way to stop the toll Parkinson’s is taking on his life.
“This is a horrible disease,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
(Featured image is of Ron and Mary Niebruegge at the family farm in Valmeyer, Illinois. Photo by Whitney Curtis.)
(Aliya Uteuova is a reporter for The Guardian. This story is co-published with The Guardian.)
(This work is excluded from Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Any copy or redistribution in any medium or forum requires express permission by The New Lede.)