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Parkinson 's Disease, Farmers, and Herbicide Use: New Research Strengthens the Link

In rural Fairfield, Montana Parkinson's disease occurrences are much higher than the national aver age of 1 in 1000 people over the age o! 60, and 1 in 10,000 people under the age of 60. At least 12 people living around the Fairfield area, with a population of 650, have contracted the disease. Dick Chalfon is one of them. A lifelong farmer, Chalfon began feeling weak several years ego. Two years ego, after he was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease, he quit farming. "My legs would get tired walking. ... It's gotten steadily worse," says Chalfon.

Parkinson's disease, a nervous system disorder, decreases muscle control and can eventually cripple the patient. According to Dr. William Koller, a Parkinson's expert at the University of Kansas Medical Center, people who handle herbicides, drink well water, or are around industrial pollutants, appear more likely to contract the disease. A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan tests the hypothesis that the occupational use of herbicides is associated with an increased risk for Parkinson's disease.2

In order to test this hypothesis, a population-based case-control study was used. The study consisted of 130 residents of Calgary, Alberta (Canada) with confirmed cases of Parkinson's disease and 260 randomly selected age and sex matched community controls. Using persona! interviews, the study obtained lifetime occupational histories, including chemical exposure data Rural living, farm living, or well-water drinking at any time during the first 45 years of life did not appear to be a strong risk factor for Parkinson's disease. In the first analysis done by the. research team, however, a history of occupational herbicide or insecticide use was associated with a statistically significant threefold increase in Parkinson's disease risk. The data also suggested a dose-response relationship between the cumulative lifetime exposure to grain and field crop farming and an increased risk of contracting the disease. When a more-sophisticated statistical technique was used to control for cumulative interaction between the exposure variables, previous occupational use of herbicides was consistently the only significant predictor of the disease.

The association between pesticide use and risk of Parkinson's disease has been studied for almost ten years, since researchers noted that users of a drug that is chemically similar to the herbicide paraquat developed Parkinson's disease.

While some of the studies since then have yielded conflicting results, this new association of occupational use of herbicides with an increased risk of contracting Parkinson's disease raises doubts about the safety of agricultural chemical use. This is particularly true in rural towns in agricultural areas such as Fairfield, Montana. Awareness of safety while using chemicals is a growing concern. Unfortunately for people like Dick Chalfon, who have already contracted a disease, the danger of chemical use has already taken its toll.

Ecke, Richard. 1992 Parkinson's hits rural Montana Great Falls Tribune. (October 13)

Semchuk, Karen M., Edgar J. Love and Robert G. Lee. 1992. Parkinson's disease and exposure to agricultural work and pesticide chemicals. Neurology 42: 1328-1335

Citation for this article: Pfohman, Robin. 1992, "Parkinson's disease, farmers, and herbicide use : New research strengthens the link", Vol. 12, No. 4 , Winter 1992, pp. 26.

Copyright 1992 Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Reprinted with permission.

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