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Farmer spraying pesticide during sunset time

On August 2, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an interim decision for the pesticide paraquat. After examining the evidence concerning the pesticide’s potential health effects, the agency finalized new, stronger safety measures to reduce exposure for applicators, but did not ban the pesticide.

In response, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation challenged the decision, filing a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The petitioners alleged that various aspects of the decision were unsupported by substantial evidence. Mainly, they challenged the assessment of the pesticide’s link to Parkinson’s disease.

On September 23, 2022, the EPA filed its own petition seeking voluntary remand of the interim decision. Upon remand, the agency will “reconsider various aspects of its discretionary Interim Decision as challenged by the Foundation.”

Granting the motion, the EPA states, “will conserve the court’s and the parties’ resources, as it will allow EPA to address the above-described issues without the need for further briefing, oral argument, or a court decision.”

Parkinson’s Linked to Parkinson’s Disease in Many Studies

Paraquat is an herbicide applied to control weeds and grasses in crops including cotton, corn, and soybeans. All paraquat products are restricted, meaning that only certified applicators can use them.

Studies over the past several years have linked exposure to paraquat with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. In a 2019 review, for instance, researchers found that PD occurrence was 25 percent higher in participants exposed to paraquat. Results from a subgroup analysis also indicated a higher PD frequency in those who were exposed to the herbicide for longer periods.

In its interim decision, the EPA stated that it “evaluated hundreds of studies,” including literature on paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease. The studies ranged in quality and provided conflicting results. One 2020 study reported no association between paraquat exposure and the disease, while other earlier studies did show a link.

Further, “After a thorough review of the best available science…,” the EPA wrote, “EPA has not found a clear link between paraquat exposure from labeled uses and adverse health outcomes such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer.” The agency further concluded that, with improved mitigation measures, “any remaining potential worker and/or ecological risks are outweighed by the benefits associated with the use of paraquat.”

EPA Wishes to Further Consider Some Issues Related to Paraquat

In light of the petition, the EPA now wants to go back and “reconsider issues” raised by the Foundation. It noted that it was not under any obligation to publish the interim decision in the first place and that it hopes a remand would negate the need for a deadline for administrative action.

The EPA admits no error in its interim decision analysis but wishes to further consider risk-benefit balancing, assessment of costs, and paraquat’s potential for volatilization—which occurs when an applied pesticide volatilizes and moves through the air.

Meanwhile, manufacturers of paraquat are defending thousands of paraquat Parkinson’s disease lawsuits. All federally filed cases have been centralized in the Southern District of Illinois for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings. The first bellwether trial is scheduled to begin in July 2023.

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