Secret “Paraquat Papers” reveal corporate tactics to protect weed killer linked to Parkinson’s disease
By Carey Gillam and Aliya Uteuova
For decades, Swiss chemical giant Syngenta has manufactured and marketed a widely used weed killing 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 cause the dreaded, 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 weed killer 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 obtained by The New Lede in a reporting collaboration with 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 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 lay out how 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….”
That prediction of legal consequences has come to pass. Thousands of people who allege they developed Parkinson’s because of long-term chronic effects of paraquat exposure are now suing Syngenta. Along with Syngenta, they are also suing Chevron USA, the successor to a company that distributed paraquat in the US from 1966 to 1986. Both companies deny any liability and continue to maintain that scientific evidence does not support a causal link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease.
“Recent thorough reviews performed by the most advanced and science-based regulatory authorities, including the United States and Australia, continue to support the view that paraquat is safe,” Syngenta said in a statement.
Chevron issued a statement saying that the company and predecessors had no role in causing the plaintiffs’ illnesses, and it “will vigorously defend against the allegations in the lawsuits.”
As part of a court-ordered disclosure in the litigation, the companies provided plaintiffs’ lawyers with decades of internal records, including hand-written and typed memos, internal presentations, and emails to and from scientists, lawyers and company officials around the world. And though the files have not yet been made public through the court system, The New Lede and the Guardian reviewed hundreds of pages of these documents.
Among the revelations from the documents: Scientists with Syngenta predecessor Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. (ICI) and Chevron Chemical were aware in the 1960s and 70s of mounting evidence showing paraquat could accumulate in the human brain.
When Syngenta’s own internal research showed adverse effects of paraquat on brain tissue, the company withheld that information from regulators while downplaying the validity of similar findings being reported by independent scientists.
In addition, the records show company scientists were aware of evidence that exposure to paraquat could impair the central nervous system (CNS), triggering tremors and other symptoms in experimental animals similar to those suffered by people with Parkinson’s disease. A 1975 Chevron communication speaks of concerns about “alleged permanent CNS effects from paraquat.”
And as independent researchers continued to find more and more evidence that paraquat may cause Parkinson’s, the documents describe what Syngenta called an “influencing” strategy “that proactively diffuses the potential threats that we face” and to “maintain and safeguard paraquat registrations.” The strategy “must consider how best to influence academia, and regulatory and NGO environments.”
A Syngenta “Regulatory Strategy” document from 2003 refers to paraquat as a “blockbuster product” that must be “vigorously” defended to protect more than $400 million in projected annual global sales. Ensuring what Syngenta called its “Freedom to Sell” paraquat was a top priority, the internal records show.
Syngenta also created a website the company used to publicly dismiss concerns about links between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease and provide positive product messaging. On that website, the company asserted that paraquat did not readily cross the blood-brain barrier, even when the company had evidence from animal and human data that paraquat accumulated in brain tissue. The company no longer uses that language on its website.
Overall, a review of hundreds of pages of internal records suggests that Syngenta and its predecessor may have engaged in tactics that have come to be seen as a corporate playbook for downplaying the potential dangers of profitable products. And the records illustrate how regulatory reliance on corporate assurances of product safety can put public health at risk.
“It is highly unethical for a company not to reveal data they have that could indicate that their product is more toxic than had been believed,” said Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, speaking generally about corporate conduct. “They’re trying to maximize profits and they jeopardize public health and it shouldn’t be allowed. That is the scandal.”
“A unique herbicide”
Paraquat is one of the most widely used weed killing chemicals in the world, competing with herbicides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand for use in agriculture. Farmers use it both to control weeds before planting their crops and to dry out crops for harvest. In the United States, the chemical is used in orchards, wheat fields, pastures where livestock graze, cotton fields and elsewhere. As weeds have become more resistant to glyphosate, paraquat popularity has surged.
US government data shows that the amount of paraquat used in the United States has more than tripled between 1992 and 2018.
On the Syngenta-run Paraquat Information Center website, the chemical is described as “a unique herbicide” that “can deliver safe, effective weed control, generating social and economic benefits, while protecting the land for future generations.”
Paraquat has been the subject of more than 1,200 safety studies submitted to, and reviewed by, regulatory authorities around the world, according to Syngenta.
Though it is widely used, paraquat has long been known to be dangerous to ingest – a tiny swallow of the chemical can kill a person within days. Scores of people around the world have died from ingesting paraquat either intentionally or accidentally. The EPA restricts use only to people certified and trained to apply it. It is not sold to consumers, and paraquat warning labels carry the symbol of death – a skull and crossbones.
Syngenta maintains on its website that if users follow directions and wear proper protective clothing, including gloves and boots, “there is no risk to human safety.” Paraquat is “not a neurotoxicity hazard,” and “does not cause Parkinson’s disease,” the company states.
Despite the company’s claims, dozens of countries have banned paraquat, both because of the acute dangers and due to mounting evidence of links to health risks such as Parkinson’s from chronic, long-term exposure. Syngenta currently sells paraquat products in more than two dozen countries.
Paraquat was banned in the European Union in 2007 after a court found that regulators erred in dismissing safety concerns, including scientific evidence connecting Parkinson’s to paraquat. It is also banned in the UK, although it is manufactured there. The chemical was banned in Switzerland, Syngenta’s home country, in 1989. And it is banned in China, the home base for ChemChina, which purchased Syngenta five years ago.
In the US, the EPA has largely agreed with Syngenta and other chemical companies that say paraquat can be safely used. Last year, the EPA said it would continue to allow farmers to use paraquat, including spraying it across fields from small airplanes.
Several environmental and health advocacy groups challenged the EPA in federal court over its paraquat approval, arguing the agency has ignored overwhelming scientific evidence of the risks paraquat poses to human health, including Parkinson’s. In late September the EPA said it would reconsider its position on paraquat, taking into account the points raised by the groups.
A “Parkinson’s pandemic”
Concerns about possible ties between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease have grown as the spread of Parkinson’s has accelerated; the disease is now considered one of the world’s fastest-growing neurological disorders. Prevalence of Parkinson’s more than doubled from 1990 to 2015 and is expected to continue to expand rapidly, impacting millions of people around the world.
Roughly 60,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with Parkinson’s and in recent years it has been ranked among the top 15 causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, the death rate from Parkinson’s has climbed more than 60% in the United States over the past two decades, according to research published last year.
As a disease of the central nervous system, common Parkinson’s symptom include tremors, or a rhythmic shaking in arms and legs, stiffness and rigidity of the muscles, a loss of balance and coordination, and difficulty speaking. Parkinson’s symptoms develop when dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra are lost or otherwise degenerate. Without sufficient dopamine production, the brain is not capable of transmitting signals between cells to control movement and balance
“The Parkinson’s pandemic has exacted an enormous toll on tens of millions of individuals who bear the brunt of the disease,” Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Center for Health + Technology in New York, wrote in a 2020 book about the rise of the disease.
Dorsey is one of a number of leading scientists from around the world who say research clearly shows paraquat exposure can cause Parkinson’s disease.
“Paraquat is considered the most toxic herbicide ever created,” Dorsey said in an interview.
Along with paraquat, toxins in air pollution and other pesticides also are considered by many researchers as risk factors for the disease.
Syngenta said the weight of evidence actually shows that paraquat does not cause Parkinson’s and said a 2021 study co-authored by its chief medical officer backs that position.. The company also pointed to a 2020 update to the US Agricultural Health Study (AHS) as supporting its position. Syngenta pointed out that the 2020 AHS looked at a much larger group of people than prior AHS research that did link paraquat to Parkinson’s.
“There is no properly-designed epidemiological study that shows a link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease,” the company said in a statement.
Syngenta predecessor ICI first recognized paraquat’s value as an herbicide in 1955, launching its paraquat brand Gramoxone in the United Kingdom in 1962 and then in the United States shortly after.
Even as the company was bringing paraquat to the market, its scientists were starting to see early signs of possible problems with the product. Internal records show that in 1958, an ICI researcher reported to a colleague that company tests on laboratory animals found exposure to a chemical compound related to paraquat appeared to affect the central nervous system.
A 1964 ICI study on rabbits noted dermal exposure to paraquat caused “weakness and incoordination” in some of the animals. In 1966, ICI scientists studying paraquat exposure effects on a variety of animals noted that “large doses” given to rats and mice showed effects on the central nervous system, with some animals displaying a stiff gait or tremors.
In 1968, paraquat poisoning deaths were starting to mount around the world, as many people intentionally used the herbicide as a tool for suicide. And with the deaths, according to the documents, came multiple autopsies and analyses revealing that paraquat was crossing the blood-brain barrier and accumulating in brain tissue in people who had ingested small amounts of paraquat.
In the early 1970s, animal studies by ICI researchers found more evidence of the chemical’s ability to move into the brain, as well as the lungs, and spinal cord. Workers exposed to the chemical were complaining of health problems, and the documents indicate that by 1974 some state regulators were expressing concerns about the potential long-term, chronic effects on workers who might inadvertently lick small quantities of paraquat residue off lips, or inhale paraquat mist. Company officials were also warned of rumors that some people inside the EPA were in favor of banning paraquat.
In response, Chevron executives decided the labeling on Gramoxone needed stronger warning language, including advising users to wear goggles and a respirator when spraying. Notes from a February 1974 meeting referred to the “paraquat toxicological problem in the USA” and “increasing numbers of reports of toxicological effects of paraquat to applicators in the field.”
ICI expressed concern about market “repercussions” from added warnings, but agreed, according to the meeting notes.
Notes from a follow-up meeting a month later quoted a Chevron lawyer as saying “to a lawyer there is evidence now that paraquat could cause industrial injury and it should be recognized that Chevron could face suits totalling millions of dollars.”
A year later, Chevron fears were growing. In a July 1975 letter to ICI a Chevron toxicologist noted “problems of nosebleed and sore throat in our own plant workers,” as well as studies indicating the potential for central nervous system effects from paraquat. The Chevron scientist told ICI that “anything you have on the question of permanent injury from paraquat, or any “follow-up evaluations several years after spraying would be of benefit to us.”
Notes from an October 1975 meeting between Chevron and ICI meeting recorded that “Chevron are concerned on the chronic effects of paraquat sprays… The syndrome is reported as injury to the CNS…” The notes state that there may be a need for long-term toxicity studies or an epidemiology study because “Chevron would like “more positive data “to use in litigation cases.” In the same meeting, it was noted that an autopsy of a recent paraquat poisoning victim had found lesions on the motor neurons “sufficient to cause debilitation.” (Motor neurons are cells in the brain and spinal cord that send commands from the brain to the rest of the body.)
In a December 1975 letter to the Chevron toxicologist, an ICI scientist wrote: “We discussed last week the point you raised about possible chronic effects, which you see causing legal problems…. and, frankly, I do not believe a satisfactory investigation can be made. However, I think some plan could be made, and to be as definitive as possible, any study must be as free from doubt as possible.”
As the companies fretted, the bad news continued to build: A 1976 autopsy of a farmworker analyzed by ICI showed “degenerative changes” in the “cells of the substantia nigra” of the brain, a hallmark for Parkinson’s. A Chevron memo that year noted “gaps in our knowledge of the chronic effects of paraquat exposure.”
Also that year, an ICI scientist studying paraquat exposure in goats documented more evidence of the chemical accumulating in brain tissue, and a Chevron test recorded neurological symptoms in rabbits exposed to paraquat. A 1977 report for California regulators documented severe neurological symptoms, including incoordination and memory loss, in a worker exposed to paraquat.
By 1985 the science on paraquat’s health effects had become the subject of vigorous research by independent scientists, and the findings were ringing alarm bells within Chevron’s highest ranks.
In October 1985, an internal memorandum circulated to top Chevron officials noted that a study by a Canadian researcher had found “an extraordinarily high correlation” between Parkinson’s and the use of pesticides, including paraquat. The memo also noted that paraquat was ‘chemically very similar” to the byproduct of synthetic heroin called MTPT, “which produces almost instant Parkinson’s, by killing dopaminergic neurons in the brain.”
The author of the Canadian study had warned that an upsurge in Parkinson’s disease would be seen as a consequence of the relatively recent introduction of paraquat-like pesticides.
The asbestos situation “highlighted the especially severe financial risks involved in selling a product which contributes to a chronic disease,” the memo states. “Parkinson’s can go on for decades.”
R. Gwin Follis, retired chairman of the Standard Oil Co. – which became known as Chevron in 1984 – then wrote to G.M. Keller, chairman of Chevron: “I cannot think of anything more horrible for us to bequeath to our successors than an asbestos problem.”
Chevron stopped selling paraquat a year later, in 1986.
Chevron said its decision to stop distributing paraquat was due to “increased competition” and not related to worries about health concerns regarding paraquat. None of the studies reviewed by the distributor during the time it was selling paraquat showed a causal link between paraquat and Parkinson’s, Chevron said.
A “defensive position”
Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the research on paraquat and Parkinson’s expanded, both inside and outside Syngenta. Several US researchers did a series of studies that found unsettling impacts of paraquat on mice, adding more evidence the chemical could cause Parkinson’s.
Syngenta noted these “external pressures on paraquat” and decided its own scientists should repeat studies done by the outside scientists to see if they came up with the same results. The hope was that they would not, which would give Syngenta ammunition to refute the outside work. There was a caveat: The Syngenta science team “avoided measuring PQ [paraquat] levels in the brain, since the detection of any PQ in the brain (no matter how small) will not be perceived externally in a positive light,” according to an internal Syngenta presentation.
“Data generated will be used to build a scientifically robust, defensive position for paraquat in response to the issues already in the scientific literature, and to questions raised by the media, customers and regulatory authorities,” another Syngenta document stated.
“The issue around the claims that paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease are linked needs to be addressed if the future Syngenta aspirations for the product are to be realized.”
Along with making a plan to generate data for its defense, Syngenta began honing a broader “influencing” strategy and “Freedom to Sell” strategy. A 2003 8-page document made the objectives clear: The goal was not just to protect paraquat, but to expand its use.
At the time, the chemical was under regulatory review in Australia and the European Union. The company worried that regulators may start to replace “higher hazard products with lower hazard products, applying a “precautionary principle,” that the company said “poses a threat.”
Under that type of regulatory approach, companies seeking to sell a chemical have a burden of proving product safety. In contrast, the US regulatory system largely takes the opposite approach – a chemical must be proven unsafe to be kept off the market.
In response to the growing regulatory threats, Syngenta said it would take several steps, including leading “national, regional and global industry initiatives to influence regulatory policy.”
The company also set as an objective “targeted collaborations with key influencers to improve product image…”
Internal communications show the company discussed consultations with several senior European scientists, and plans to “contribute substantively [sic] to the literature,” including for studies being done for submission to the United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Agricultural Health Study in the US, decades-long collaborative research project involving multiple US government agencies.
As Syngenta honed its defenses, the data from its internal studies started to come in. The first internal study done in 2003 was designed to dose mice with paraquat as outside scientists had done, and then measure any loss of dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra of the animals’ brains. Syngenta’s tests did find losses but used a manual counting technique for analyzing those losses that was different from the automated technique used by independent scientists. Under the Syngenta analysis, the impacts of paraquat on the animal’s brains were deemed not statistically significant, and thus not showing a link to Parkinson’s, a finding Syngenta made public.
What the company did not publicize at the time, however, was the fact that Syngenta scientist Louise Marks, who led the animal studies in question, repeated those studies using the more accurate, automated technique used by independent scientists.
She found that when using an automated analysis technique, paraquat actually did result in a statistically significant loss of the relevant brain cells – just as the outside scientists had found. Marks did another study, and the results were the same. Marks could not be reached for comment.
Deposition testimony given in the current litigation by longtime Syngenta scientist Phillip Botham, which has not previously been made public, indicates that company officials would not tell the EPA of Marks’ research findings until roughly 15 years later, in 2019. The company only told the EPA about the Marks’ data after lawyer Steve Tillery, who in 2019 was suing Syngenta on behalf of people with Parkinson’s, threatened to send the evidence to the EPA himself, according to a transcript of Botham’s testimony.
When asked about the Marks tests, Sygnenta said: “The Marks studies involved a model in which a particular breed of mouse was injected with near-lethal doses of paraquat. Such models are of limited relevance to evaluating the safety of those using paraquat occupationally.”
The deposition also revealed that when Syngenta said on its website that paraquat did not readily cross the blood-brain barrier, and did not reach the specific area of the brain necessary to produce Parkinson’s symptoms, the company knew those statements were not accurate.
When asked in the deposition if that information was true at the time it was posted on the website, Botham admitted it “certainly had some inaccuracies.” “It appears that this communication had not had a chance, for reasons which I can’t fully explain, to catch up with the science that was still emerging,” he said, according to a transcript of his deposition.
A secret plan
Part of the strategy to influence regulators involved trying to lobby for and against who the EPA looked to for independent scientific advice. In 2005, the EPA was considering appointing Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta to an open position on an important agency scientific advisory panel (SAP) on pesticides. Cory-Slechta was an influential US scientist whose work at the time was establishing ever-stronger evidence that paraquat could cause Parkinson’s disease.
“This is important. We do not want to have Cory-Slechta on the SAP core panel,” Syngenta senior research scientist Charles Breckenridge wrote to colleagues in a June 2005 email.
Company emails show Syngenta decided to ask Ray McAllister, a regulatory policy expert at the industry lobbying group CropLife America (CLA), to disparage Cory-Slechta’s work in communications to the EPA. Syngenta officials wrote what they wanted McAllister to tell the EPA, and delivered it to McAllister.
“Ray has a tough job to do in providing comments that don’t come back to haunt CLA and be used against us,” one Syngenta executive wrote to colleagues.
Another Syngenta executive wrote to colleagues that it was “going to be very difficult to pin something really specific on D C-S…”
The company decided secrecy would be key. The company did not want the public or the EPA to know Syngenta was behind the effort.
“I would ask that you handle our comments with care & in such a way that they cannot be attributed to Syngenta,” Greg Watson, a Syngenta regulatory affairs executive, wrote to McAllister. He then suggested that the communications to the EPA about Cory-Slechta “should be submitted informally & NOT placed in the public docket.”
In a separate email Watson wrote that “for many, many of our projects it would be a real disaster to have her on the SAP!”
Watson suggested, among other things, that McAllister tell the EPA that Cory-Slechta used an “over-interpretation of data” to present scientific conclusions that were “in reality, speculation,” and was someone who made “overly-dogmatic” statements.
After some back and forth on the language to be used, McAllister communicated the concerns about Cory-Slechta to the EPA without mentioning they came from Syngenta. The agency chose someone else for the advisory panel.
The documents show similar efforts to influence the roster of scientists selected by the EPA for a 2010-2011 pesticide advisory panel. At that time, Syngenta advised CropLife to tell the EPA that Cory-Slechta was using her research program for “anti-pesticide advocacy,” and was identifying effects “without quality data.”
Again, the effort was successful. Cory-Slechta was not selected for the panel in question, while a scientist supported by CropLife was.
When asked to comment about the company’s actions against her, Cory-Slechta said she was not surprised. She said Syngenta representatives had tried various tactics over the years to intimidate her, and also at least once to woo her with an invitation to help fund and collaborate on research.
“They would follow me around,” she said in an interview. “It was clear they were not happy with me. Consistently our research showed that when you administer paraquat in rodent models you would see a loss of dopamine cells… in the substantia nigra. That is the hallmark, or the gold standard, of Parkinson’s disease.”
“They didn’t like the data. They saw a threat to a huge market,” she said.
Cory-Slechta said she is not anti-pesticide, nor pro-pesticide. “I want to stay in the middle,” she said. “I pride myself and I go overboard to stay in the middle. I let myself be led by the data.”
When asked about the Cory-Slechta correspondence, Syngenta said: “We disagree and take exception to this mischaracterization.”
Another plan inside Syngenta developed around how company science team communications should be handled in order to be able to claim an attorney-client privilege in the face of the potential of paraquat/Parkinson’s litigation.
According to the Botham deposition transcript, a 2008 meeting was called in Atlanta, Georgia for Syngenta scientists to discuss the latest research looking at paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, and to get advice from outside lawyers about how to manage their communications going forward. Among other things, the scientists were given legal advice regarding how to take notes in ways that could be considered privileged.
Notes summarizing the meeting stated that “Internal communications with internal or external counsel should make it clear that the correspondence is privileged and that it is for potential paraquat PD litigation.” And, according to the deposition, the notes read:
“Study work should be labeled Work Product Doctrine Material – Confidential, and carry the Attorney Client Privilege statement.”
No “clear link”
Tillery, the plaintiffs lawyer, was poised to present many of these internal documents and other evidence at a June 2021 trial in Illinois that would have been the first major court challenge to Syngenta and Chevron over the Parkinson’s connection to paraquat.
Just as the trial was set to begin, however, Syngenta agreed to pay $187.5 million to settle with the plaintiffs in that case and several others, according to a disclosure in the company’s 2021 financial statement. The company did not admit liability as part of the settlement. It is not clear how much, if any, Chevron might have paid.
Other lawyers are now pressing claims for more than 2,000 other plaintiffs with Parkinsons’ disease, including filing lawsuits on behalf of people with Parkinson’s in Canada.
In the meantime, the EPA’s agreement to reconsider its assessment of paraquat has been welcomed by the farmworker groups, Parkinson’s scientists and others who brought the court challenge. The agency has said it will take another look at the health risks and costs that come with the widespread use of paraquat, and will have a revised report out in a year.
“Our research partners have studied the ample and compelling evidence showing paraquat’s association with neurological degradation and symptoms related to PD,” Ted Thompson, senior vice president of public policy at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, said in an email. “We believe the federal government and the EPA should use every tool at their disposal to eliminate its risk.”
It is not clear, however, if the EPA’s extended review of paraquat will change the agency’s position. EPA scientists said in its 2019 draft human health risk assessment that its review of research about the potential association between paraquat and Parkinson’s had found only 71 studies out of 489 to be “environmentally relevant to the agency’s analysis.”
The agency “has not found a clear link between paraquat exposure from labeled uses and adverse health outcomes such as Parkinson’s disease…,” the agency states on its website.
While the agency conducts its reassessment, paraquat use continues.
(Aliya Uteuova is a reporter at The Guardian, which collaborated and co-published this story.)
(See, search and download documents in the Paraquat Papers Library.)
(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.)