WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Walter Parker worked on a farm for decades. He retired in 2001.
"Been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and that was determined by a scan on my brain," said Parker. "My gate is messed up, I don't have very good balancing. I'm in a wheelchair."
Parker said he believes his declining health is due to exposure to the herbicide paraquat.
"When you flag the planes to line them up in the fields, sometimes they don't cut off the spray when they reach the end of the field," he said. And some would drip on me and I would be sitting in my truck, could feel it on my arms."
Dr. Ray Dorsey co-authored the book Ending Parkinson's Disease. He's with the University of Rochester Medical Center. He said research on the herbicide and paraquat started years ago.
"My colleague across the street wanted to better understand whether a certain pesticide called paraquat increases the risk of Parkinson's Disease," said Dr. Dorsey. "So she fed paraquat to lab animals and she found when she did so, the lab animals developed the features of Parkinson's Disease."
Dorsey said people exposed to the herbicide might not be affected till years later.
"We know that Parkinson's Disease like lung cancer takes years if not decades to develop. The story that someone has exposure to the chemical ten, twenty years ago or even more years ago and develops the disease is not uncommon. Paraquat like many other pesticides targets the energy-producing part of cells."
A legal battle is taking place across the country, including here in Palm Beach County about exposure to paraquat. Attorney Cal Warriner is with Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart and Shipley.
"Once a crop is harvested they go in and blast the residual stocks and sticks that are still growing green material with paraquat and it kills it almost immediately," said Warriner."It's very, very effective at what it does, so the farmers don't have to go back and burn diesel fuel and pull tractors to prepare the soil." He said paraquat is toxic. "We've been collecting cases where people were exposed to paraquat, typically farmers and have been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
According to the EPA, you have to have a license to purchase paraquat. And currently in 2021 you have to have a license not only to buy it, but you have to be licensed and trained to mix and apply it."
Warriner said that was not the case years ago.
"All of our clients are people who operated on farms before those regulations changed," Warriner added. "One they have a language barrier, two for years and years and years they never received training on the use of this pesticide and three access to healthcare is such a problem for them."
He hopes advocates will step in to help farmworkers get the help they need.
Dr. Dorsey said, "There are safer alternatives to using paraquat so we need to ban it and stop sewing the seeds of Parkinson's Disease for future generations," Dorsey said. "The EPA's own website says one sip can kill. If one sip can kill, then the pesticide, it's time to stop using it."
Warriner said the herbicide is banned in more than 30 countries, including the two countries that handle most of the production of the herbicide.