Pesticides & Parkinson's: What Everyone Should Know

Pesticides & Parkinson's: What Everyone Should Know

by Jackie Hunt Christensen

Everyone has seen TV commercials and magazine ads – even food packaging – urging them to eat more fruits and vegetables. And that is a good thing. But many Parkies* and their care partners already have plenty to worry about, especially if protein intake and their medication schedule conflict. Besides, a tomato is just a tomato, right?

Unfortunately, no. A conventional tomato will be grown with any number of more than 50 pesticides**. One of these, a fungicide called maneb, has been linked to Parkinson-like symptoms in lab animals. Studies of people living near the Central Valley in California and who were exposed to both maneb and the herbicide paraquat were at a much higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (PD) than those who were exposed to only one of the two chemicals. Farmers who use pesticides and their spouses have been found to be 2.5 times more likely to develop PD. There are dozens of studies indicting pesticides in general and certain compounds in particular for their relationship to PD. But you don’t have to be a farmer to be exposed to pesticides. You might breathe contaminated dust that blows off of farm fields. Or you could be exposing yourself if you use a rotenone-containing product in your garden to keep certain insects away from your tomatoes.

Right now, you may be thinking “I already have Parkinson’s disease. Why should I care about pesticides?” Here are a few reasons:

  • Some pesticides can kill dopamine-producing neurons outright. If you are already low on those, wouldn’t you want to keep the ones we have left. Other compounds cause inflammation, which may reduce the brain’s ability to deal with any additional stressors.
  • Many pesticides used on food crops are known or thought to cause cancer, infertility, birth defects and learning disabilities. Those health conditions may not be of concern for you, but think about your children, friends and grandchildren.
  • Some pesticides have been shown to interfere with the endocrine system, affecting hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, thyroid and other chemicals in the body.
  • Pesticides that have been banned here in the U.S. are used on food crops in other countries that sell the food back to us. This is often referred to as “the circle of poison.”

This news may seem depressing and fatalistic. But there are actions you can take, such as:

  • Buy organic food whenever you can. A wider variety of foods are becoming available and the cost of many items has dropped. It is important to know that “organic” does not mean “pesticide-free.” Federal standards regulate the products that can be used in organic agriculture. “Organic” does generally mean that synthetic chemical pesticides have not been used to grow or store the food.
  •  Some pesticides are integrated into a plant as it grows, so you can’t simply wash them off. Others form a tough residue that is difficult to remove. Certain fruits and vegetables are treated with more pesticides than others. You can learn which foods those are with Environmental Working Group’s “2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” and an app with the same information. Both are available at www.ewg.org.
  • Know where your food comes from. Farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) are becoming commonplace, even in large cities. Getting at least some of your food in this way gives you the opportunity to ask how weeds and pests are managed and use the answers to inform your choices.
  • Eliminate or minimize your pesticide use at home. If you must use a pesticide, try to find the least toxic alternative. Remember, pests need three things to survive: food, water, and shelter. Filling in cracks and cleaning up immediately after meals can help deter mice, ants and roaches. Search online for “home integrated pest management” or contact your local agricultural extension service for more information.
  • Replace your lawn with low-maintenance perennial flowers and shrubs. Or learn to live with dandelions and creeping Charlie. Nearly all of the “weed and feed” lawn care products contain 2,4-D – the half of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange that has not yet been banned.
  • Advocate for your health and your family’s health. Get involved with non-profit organizations such as Pesticide Action Network (www.panna.org); Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (www.saferchemicals.org) and Beyond Pesticides (www.beyondpesticides.org).
*  I prefer the moniker “Parkie” to describe myself and others with the disease. It takes too long to say or to write “people with Parkinson’s” or “people living with   Parkinson’s. ”The term “Parkinsonian” always makes me think the writer is referring to a style of architecture or a physics phenomenon. Besides, having a sense of humor is an important way of coping with PD. If the reference offends you, I apologize. Please mentally insert your term of choice when reading this article.


Jackie Hunt Christensen has been an environmental health activist for more than 20 years. During her 10-year tenure as Co-Director of the “Food and Health” program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, much of her time was spent researching how pollution affects food and then translating it for consumers. She is also a co-coordinator of Health Care Without Harm: The Campaign for Environmentally Responsible Health Care (HCWH). She assisted with data collection and editing of a report on pesticide usage in hospitals. Since being diagnosed with PD in 1998, she has narrowed her focus to environmental issues that relate to PD but she remains an ardent activist.



** Pesticide Use on Tomatoes in 2009," PAN Pesticides Database - California Pesticide Use.  http://www.pesticideinfo.org/DS.jsp?sk=11005. Accessed July 25, 2011.

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