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.
Source: The New Lede
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.