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Today’s post is an open letter to Jacinda Ardern – Prime minister of New Zealand.
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Dear Jacinda (if I may),
Firstly, let me thank you for your actions during your first term as Prime Minister of New Zealand. The empathy and compassion you expressed in the face of tragic events like Christchurch and White Island have been exemplary, and the stewardship that you have demonstrated on COVID-19 has been a template for the rest of the world to follow. Even though I have lived away from NZ for almost 20 years now, the example you present makes one proud to be a kiwi. And congratulations on winning another term in the recent elections – Godspeed.
The reason for my letter today is to bring your attention to a matter that should be addressed by your Government: a complete ban on the continued use of the non-selective chemical herbicide, paraquat.
It has been used in New Zealand since the 1960s, but the amount used has risen five-fold since 2004 to 42 tonnes a year (Source). NZ’s Safe Food campaign spokesman Meriel Watts was quoted last year as saying “I’m a bit shocked New Zealanders are using that much because 46 tonnes is a huge amount and it’s a really antiquated herbicide. People use it because it’s cheap” (Source).
During that same period of time that NZ has been using increasing amounts of this cheap, antiquated herbicide, paraquat has been banned by the European Union (2007), the United Kingdom (2007), and China (2020).
And it should be noted that other countries banned the use of this chemical long before 2004 (these countries include Syria, Cambodia, Hungary, Kuwait, Norway, Slovenia, Denmark, Austria and Finland). In fact, far sighted Sweden banned paraquat in 1983!
Why have these other countries acted?
Paraquat (or N, N′-dimethyl-4,4′-bipyridinium dichloride; chemical formula: (C₆H₇N)₂]Cl₂) is an organic compound that acts as an oxidant that interferes with electron transfer inside of cells. In layperson terms, it is a “stick in the spokes” in terms of energy production in cells, which causes an imbalance and stress within cells that ultimately kills them.
Oxidant-based herbicides can be very useful in controlling weeds, but the problem is that paraquat is non-selective. This means indiscriminate. It does not care which types of cells it affects, be they weed cells or human brain cells.
And this is where the real issue lies.
Due to its indiscriminate nature, paraquat has long been associated with an increased risk of developing numerous medical conditions, particularly the neurodegenerative disease known as Parkinson’s.
For example, this report :
Title: Rotenone, paraquat, and Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Tanner CM, Kamel F, Ross GW, Hoppin JA, Goldman SM, Korell M, Marras C, Bhudhikanok GS, Kasten M, Chade AR, Comyns K, Richards MB, Meng C, Priestley B, Fernandez HH, Cambi F, Umbach DM, Blair A, Sandler DP, Langston JW.
Journal: Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Jun;119(6):866-72.
PMID: 21269927 (This report is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In the discussion of this study, the authors wrote that their results “suggest that paraquat use plays a role in human Parkinson’s. Because paraquat remains one of the most widely used herbicides worldwide, this finding potentially has great public health significance” (Source).
Of such concern is this issue, that experts in the field of Parkinson’s research recently wrote a book entitled “Ending Parkinson’s Disease“, in which they spend a considerable portion of the text outlining the research supporting the banning paraquat.
This book has also been one of the factors that has stimulated Parkinson’s advocates to start PD Avengers – a proactive group that have made banning paraquat one of their goals (see their action alerts).
It is reassuring that the recent New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority (NZ EPA) reassessment has led to the banning of sells of the paraquat-based brands Uniquat 250, Parable 250, Gramoxone Inteon and Preeglone Inteon in New Zealand from the 11th December 2020 (Source). But this represents only a small fraction of the overall use of paraquat in New Zealand (basically just the backyard garden use for killing weeds), while the larger agricultural use of this herbicide remains in place.
I appreciate that an outright ban in New Zealand is a difficult, economic matter. Readers of this website may be aware that agriculture represents 5-7% of GDP in New Zealand (Source), but they will not appreciate that there are currently no genetically modified commercial crops in New Zealand – a prudent policy that is enshrined in law (Food Act 1981; Biosecurity Act 1993; Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act 1997), but it leaves the farming community with limited options to keep crops pest-free. Perhaps there is a research opportunity for New Zealand here?
I also appreciate that my request is hampered by the recent regulatory review interim decision on paraquat by the US EPA (Source), which indicates that rather than banning paraquat completely, the agency is proposing new measures to reduce risks associated with paraquat. But this proposal flies in the face of concern from the Parkinson’s community – the Michael J Fox Foundation has been petitioning congress in Washington DC, seeking the banning of paraquat in the US (Click here to read more about this) – and it also relies heavily on careful wording (“Based on this review, EPA concluded that there is insufficient evidence to link registered paraquat products to any of the health outcomes investigated, including Parkinson’s Disease, when used according to the label” – Source).
And I know that you have vastly more important national issues to deal with than the banning of a cheap, antiquated herbicide. But that said, New Zealand prides itself on its “clean green” image, which is a major selling point that is important for industries like tourism. It should be paramount for the country to deal with anything that could potentially tarnish that reputation (such as a cheap, antiquated herbicide that is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s). And if countries like Syria, Sweden and Slovenia can ban paraquat and find alternatives, then I would hope New Zealand could see ample opportunity in making a similar move.
Simon at The Science of Parkinson’s
PS I was aquainted with your husband Clarke when he was in Dunedin (during the Cow TV / “Walk of shame” years). He won’t remember me, but he’s a good man.
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