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.