April is Parkinson's Awareness month. While we have come a long way since James Parkinson first published An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817, we need to be doing more.
According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, "Parkinson's is a chronic, progressive, neurological disease and is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the United States." It affects an estimated 500,000 to 1,500,000 people in America, is the 14th leading cause of death and costs at least $14.4 billion annually.
Although there is much promising research, there is no known cure for Parkinson's disease. Also, relatively little is known about how Parkinson's disease develops. Research suggests that the cause of Parkinson's disease is a mix of heredity and environmental factors. Pesticides in particular have been repeatedly linked to Parkinson's disease. According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, one major environmental factor is pesticide exposure. A meta-analysis in 2012 found that those who live in rural areas or near farming communities where pesticides are used are at a greater risk of developing Parkinson's.
2,4-D is the name of one pesticide, produced by Dow Chemical, that has been linked to Parkinson's disease. Many veterans may recognize 2,4-D as half of the chemical concoction used in Vietnam called Agent Orange. According to research from the Parkinson's Institute, farmworkers exposed to 2,4-D are at double the risk of contracting Parkinson's disease.
Pesticides used in industrial agriculture, and 2,4-D in particular, may be contributing to the growth of Parkinson's disease. Again, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, cases of Parkinson's are expected to more than double by 2040.
Tragically, that rate might be optimistic. Approximately 50 million pounds of 2,4-D is used annually in the United States on residential lawns, golf courses and in agriculture. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 2,4-D is already the nation's seventh largest source of dioxins in the environment. This ranking might be even higher if EPA considered dioxins emitted in the 2,4-D production process.
Now, these numbers are likely to jump. Dow Chemical has genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton to be resistant to 2,4-D so it can be used as a weed killer and sprayed directly on the food crops. If approved, use of 2,4-D could skyrocket to 176 million pounds per year by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
We need to do more research to fully understand and address the cause of Parkinson's disease. Until then, it seems prudent to minimize exposure to potential risk factors, not exacerbate them. While at first glance disease rates and agricultural practices have no obvious connection, deeper analysis shows that the two may in fact be closely related. What we put into our environment - our soil, water, even our food - can eventually come back around and have consequences for our own bodies. It's time for regulators, policy makers, even everyday citizens to start keeping these connections in mind and make decisions accordingly. Pesticide-promoting crops like Dow's new genetically-engineered corn, soy and cotton are a serious step in the wrong direction.