As the movement to re-green our society continues, we are growing ever more conscious of the ways that our choices affect the health of our environment, our communities and our bodies. Growing closer to the agricultural roots of food production through local food movements and backyard gardening are some ways that we can get in touch with the resources that sustain us, but when we look into how food is produced, that also reveals some troubling practices that work against the common goal to better our planet and ourselves.
For example, most large-scale farms utilize harsh chemicals to rid their crops of pests and maintain their plants. Many home gardeners are working to maintain their lawns and flower beds organically to eliminate these harmful treatments, but the farming industry still relies on strong pesticides and herbicides to yield the quantity of produce that the market demands. Unfortunately, this practice comes at a great cost—the health of farmers, workers, and others exposed to these chemicals.
The weight of agricultural chemical usage is best represented by one substance in particular—an industrial-strength herbicide called paraquat—and its ill effects. Ranging from the immediate dangers posed to workers to long-term effects of exposure, the context surrounding this chemical exemplifies the serious health concerns created by current agricultural practices.
What is Paraquat?
Like familiar store-bought weedkillers, paraquat is an herbicide that kills unwanted plant life crowding a farmer’s crop. Paraquat is different than those products primarily due to its potency. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies paraquat as a “restricted use” substance, meaning that only licensed workers can obtain or apply it. It is sold in liquid form and sprayed over crops.
Paraquat’s extreme toxicity is well-known, leading many countries to ban its use entirely. In the U. S., however, farmers are using paraquat even more frequently as crops are becoming resistant to other herbicides.
What Happens if You Are Exposed to Paraquat?
Even minimal exposure to paraquat can have devastating effects. Ingesting or inhaling small doses of paraquat can lead to immediate effects like mouth and throat swelling, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Large amounts of paraquat can lead to muscle weakness, confusion, seizures, respiratory failure and even death within hours to a few days. Within hours of contact, people who are exposed can experience acute kidney failure, liver failure, heart failure and pulmonary edema.
Worryingly, further studies have concluded that exposure to paraquat may be connected to the later development of Parkinson’s disease. Adding to the existing threat of organ failure from paraquat poisoning, Parkinson’s can develop decades after exposure and cause significant mobility issues.
Who is at Risk and What Can You Do?
Due to paraquat’s delivery method, the licensed workers who spray the crops are most at risk of contracting paraquat poisoning. That said, anyone who consumes food or drinks contaminated with the substance could experience the side effects mentioned above.
While there’s a big distinction to be made between the levels of possible exposure experienced by those who work in agricultural settings and those experienced by consumers, you should always wash produce thoroughly to remove any potential traces of agricultural chemicals. Or better yet, eat organic foods. Remember, paraquat is only one of many toxic chemicals routinely used by the agriculture industry.
Paraquat is not approved for use in residential areas, but like other agricultural chemicals, it’s known to drift when it is sprayed, leading to contact with surrounding fields and the spread of the chemical. To avoid any possible contact, people are advised to avoid general areas where they know that herbicides are being sprayed. If you live in an agricultural area, get to know your neighbours and learn what they’re putting on their crops. Be aware that another common name for this herbicide is Gramoxone.
As awareness of paraquat’s toxicity reaches the public, a greater push to further regulate or ban the substance is growing. Legal actions are being taken on behalf of those who were exposed to paraquat—and especially those who were later diagnosed with Parkinson’s—hoping to win financial compensation for the affected people and hold the manufacturers accountable for improper warnings.
Ultimately, the dangers of strong herbicides like paraquat should be communicated to the public and to the workers regularly exposed to their toxicity. As individuals share knowledge with each other, the farmers, manufacturers, governments and environmental agencies involved with the continued use of such chemicals should be pushed to make better decisions for the health of the people and communities they serve.