Revealed: The secret push to bury a weedkiller’s link to Parkinson’s disease - The Guardian

While numerous independent researchers have determined that the weedkiller, paraquat, can cause neurological changes that are hallmarks of Parkinson’s, Syngenta has always maintained that the evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is “fragmentary” and “inconclusive”.

But the scientific record they point to as proof of paraquat’s safety is the same one that Syngenta officials, scientists and lawyers in the US and the UK have worked over decades to create and at times, covertly manipulate, according to the trove of internal Syngenta files reviewed by the Guardian and the New Lede.

The files reveal an array of tactics, including enlisting a prominent UK scientist and other outside researchers who authored scientific literature that did not disclose any involvement with Syngenta; misleading regulators about the existence of unfavorable research conducted by its own scientists; and engaging lawyers to review and suggest edits for scientific reports in ways that downplayed worrisome findings.

The files also show that Syngenta created what officials called a “Swat team” to be ready to respond to new independent scientific reports that could interfere with Syngenta’s “freedom to sell” paraquat. The group, also referred to as “Paraquat Communications Management Team”, was to convene “immediately on notification” of the publication of a new study, “triage the situation” and plan a response, including commissioning a “scientific critique”.

A key goal was to “create an international scientific consensus against the hypothesis that paraquat is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease,” the documents state.

In another example of a company tactic, an outside lawyer hired by Syngenta to work with its scientists was asked to review and suggest edits on internal meeting minutes regarding paraquat safety. The lawyer pushed scientists to alter “problematic language” and scientific conclusions deemed “unhelpful” to the corporate defense of paraquat.

Syngenta’s decision to involve lawyers in the editing of its scientific reports and other communications in ways that downplayed concerning findings potentially related to public health is unacceptable, said Wendy Wagner, a law professor at the University of Texas who has served on several National Academies of Science committees. “Clearly the lawyers are involved in order to limit liability,” she said.

Syngenta [stated that] there had been more than 1,200 studies of paraquat and none have “established a causal connection between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease”.

Many scientists disagree with that position, however. Paraquat has been shown in some research to increase the risk of Parkinson’s by 150% and is cited in a 2020 book, Ending Parkinson’s Disease, by four of the world’s leading neurologists as a causal factor for the disease.

The documents revealing Syngenta’s efforts to influence science build on other evidence of questionable corporate practices with regard to paraquat. A set of internal documents revealed last year by the Guardian and the New Lede made clear, among other things, that Syngenta had evidence 50 years ago that paraquat could accumulate in the human brain.

Those documents showed that Syngenta was aware decades ago of evidence that exposure to paraquat could impair the central nervous system, triggering tremors and other symptoms in experimental animals similar to those suffered by people with Parkinson’s.

They also showed that Syngenta worked covertly to keep a highly regarded scientist studying causes of Parkinson’s from sitting on an advisory panel for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the chief US regulator for paraquat and other pesticides.

Roughly 90,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with Parkinson’s. Symptoms include tremors, rigidity of the muscles, a loss of coordination, and difficulty speaking.

In the face of the developing research, the new documents show, Syngenta decided that it needed a “coherent strategy across all disciplines focusing on external influencing, that proactively diffuses the potential threats that we face”, according to the minutes of a June 2003 company meeting.

To achieve that goal, the company set several objectives, including attempting to “influence future work by external researchers where possible”.

A key strategy was the engagement of scientists outside the company who could write papers that supported Syngenta’s defense of paraquat.

Similar strategies have been pursued by other chemical companies and in other industries when safety questions arose about profitable products. Monsanto, for example, was found to have ghostwritten scientific studies about a widely used chemical called glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

The involvement of lawyers with the scientists at Syngenta appears similar to highly criticized practices by the tobacco industry in the 1970s and ’80s that downplayed the dangers of smoking, said Thomas McGarity, former EPA legal adviser and co-author of the 2008 book titled Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research.

“It looks like the paraquat maker has adopted nearly every strategy we outlined in our book about bending science,” McGarity said.

The [EPA] has a history of close relationships with industry, and critics say there is a “revolving door” of employees who move between the two, resulting in lax regulation.

Indeed, the trove of Syngenta documents reveal that its law firm hired a retired top EPA official as an expert witness to help defend the company in the litigation. Jack Housenger, director until February 2017 of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, which is the main regulator of paraquat and other pesticides, agreed to do so for $300 an hour.

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The Guardian

Organizations: Syngenta Monsanto Environmental Protection Agency 

People: Wendy Wagner Thomas McGarity Jack Housenger 

Tags: Corruption Public Health Disinformation 

Type: Headlines