The Gleaner

Parkinson’s and Pesticides

In early April, Quebec’s minister of labour, employment and social solidarity, Jean Boulet, proposed an amendment to Bill 59 concerning Parkinson’s disease. The amendment would add Parkinson’s disease in farmers to the list of occupational diseases “with presumption of a workplace cause” (in this case the use of pesticides). This would reduce the burden of proof on farm workers who are suffering from this disease and who seek compensation.

Quebec is the first jurisdiction in Canada to officially recognize the very long string of research linking Parkinson’s to rural communities and farm pesticide use. However, it’s still a long way from providing necessary support for sufferers, or from taking steps to banish even the most troubling of the suspected pesticides; the worst (but not at all the only) culprits appear to be herbicides like Roundup, diquat and Paraquat, fungicides like benomyl, insecticides like rotenone and chlorpyrifos, and even degreasing solvents like trichloroethylene.

While recognizing it as an important first step, the UPA was not very satisfied with this announcement. Union President Marcel Groleau stated, “…producers with Parkinson’s disease and farm workers not registered with CNESST will not benefit from Minister Boulet’s initiative. The current system is ill-adapted to the reality of the agricultural sector, and the Quebec government must compensate all people working on agricultural enterprises who are not registered with CNESST” [Trait d/Union de l’UPA, 1 avril 2021]. Those who would be eligible for possible help would be the employees of very large farms – which in this province is less than one third of those using these toxic materials. There are many caveats, such as having to prove workplace use for a minimum of 10 years, and applying within 7 years of disease onset.

Still, it is official recognition of what the Association of Quebec Pesticide Victims has been lobbying for. Two members of this Association who will not benefit from the new rule, Elizabeth McNamara and her husband, ran a dairy farm in the Outaouais. After 24 years of using glyphosate (Roundup) and atrazine, both have Parkinson’s, yet she says, “I was so happy to see that at least we have recognition today” [CBC Marilla Steuter-Martin, CBC News, Mar 30, 2021, “Quebec clears path for farmers with Parkinson’s to get workers’ compensation”].

A recent American Scientist article points out that “Neurological disorders are the world’s leading cause of disability … the fastest growing of these conditions is not Alzheimer’s but Parkinson’s disease.” A book written by four neurology experts published just last year, Ending Parkinson’s Disease, calls it “a man-made pandemic.” From 1990 until 2015, numbers of cases around the world shot up from 2.6 to 6.3 million; by 2040 they are expected to reach 13 million. A well-known Canadian study found an “almost perfect correlation between areas with the highest pesticide use and the highest rates of the disease” that extends around the globe [Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences].

Dairy farmer Jason Erskine is concerned about chemical safety and is a recent convert to organic farming. The change from conventional use of chemicals to organic methods has some challenges. “It’s been a steep learning curve; we had to figure out how to dry the winter cereals without chemicals. To keep weeds out, I inter-seed clover with the cereals, then I run the combine high, chop and bag it as feed. If we’re after straw, we’ll get the green stuff out; if grain, we run it through a cleaner. When I just sprayed 100 acres of grain, it was easier!”

Six years ago, Erskine’s wife Adele gave him a book, saying: “You should read this.” It was The World According to Monsanto by Marie Monique Robbins. After reading it, he told her, “You’ve ruined my life! I was happier not knowing this!” Now that he does know, Erskine has lost his former trust in chemical company claims. “Agent Orange, Borox, DDT, they always say these things are safe. If they lied then, they’ll lie now. And they always have the same answer if you have problems: Buy more chemicals.”

Erskine is quick to say that everyone’s situation is different, and he still has to use some pesticides on occasion. “I would never advise anyone else,” he says. “It’s very hard to break the cycle, to replace corn as your main crop and not lose out money-wise. But I’ve found that I’m replacing the corn with straw and other feed which means I’m not losing out overall. Plus, my milkfat was 3.8 with corn, now with the alfalfa and chopped cereals, it’s up to 4.3 fat! Less milk per cow, but more value.” He adds, “I find more and more I turn to what my father or my grandfather did, before all these chemicals.”

Of course, like all neurological disorders linked to pesticide use, Parkinson’s is a “multifactorial disease,” a collusion between genetic and environmental factors. As with tobacco smoking and cancer, it’s almost impossible to prove direct environmental links to such diseases except by “strength and consistency of association, whether it makes biological sense,” and other such factors [see Jane E. Brody, The Link Between Parkinson’s Disease and Toxic Chemicals, The New York Times, July 2020]. Still, Parkinson’s, along with many cancers, has been linked to pesticides on all these counts for at least two decades.

Back then is when local farmer Steve Lalonde switched from conventional to organic farming for his field corn, wheat, popcorn and vegetables. Unlike Jason Erskine, he didn’t do it because he was concerned about potential health effects; his agronome in St. Hyacinthe, Pierre Lachance, was always trying to find ways to use less chemicals because it would reduce costs for his farmers, thereby increasing their profits. So, Lalonde started to switch. Like Jason Erskine, he found the path more work. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “The chemical route is more reliable. We’re more weather dependent. Conventional guys can plant in April; but it has to be warm outside to naturally release nutrients in organic fertilizer. We also need the corn out of the ground as soon as possible, before the weeds grow.” He adds, “We approached it as a business decision even before we had good access to organic prices, and now subsidies. But I’m glad we did it when we did. If the science is correct and these [diseases] are the outcomes of using these pesticides, I also hope we weren’t into using them too long.”

Stéphane Bisaillon, president of the Producteurs de grains Montérégie-Ouest and long-time conventional farmer, is more relaxed about chemical use. He says the new Quebec initiative mostly means that “maybe they’re more worried about Parkinson’s.” He points out that young farmers are considerably less exposed than his generation because of new directives and warnings about use. He says “eating a sandwich around the sprayer” is certainly less likely now than when he was young.

Although studies from as long ago as 1998 in Neurology showed that the risk of developing Parkinson’s was 170 per cent greater for farmers than non-farmers [cited in Dorsey, above], all residents of rural areas are more at risk for Parkinson’s by a factor varying from 2 to 4 times the urban average [2004 study in Movement Disorders].

Just this past April 14, the city of Laval banned the use of glyphosate (Roundup) for lawn use around buildings, as has Vancouver, Quebec City, and the little town of Sainte-Anne-des-Lacs in the Laurentians. With agricultural and even garden use exempted, it’s only a partial first step. But there are also hundreds of lawsuits seeking damages for health injuries caused by pesticides and solvents worldwide, which means this story, important to life in any rural area, is likely to continue.

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