A Novel Idea: Our Food Shouldn’t Give Us Cancer or Parkinson’s Disease

California’s Central Valley is our nation’s breadbasket. After all, it’s the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities. California is also the nation’s top user of paraquat, a weed killer long linked to Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood leukemia. Paraquat is so toxic that more than 60 countries already ban its use. And the United States is fully aware of its adverse health effects on those who come into contact with it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bars its use on golf courses so that golfers can’t come into casual contact with the herbicide/weed killer but, paradoxically, permits its spraying on the food crops we all come into contact with on a daily basis.

The Food and Drug Administration may not be ready to ban paraquat but it is time for the use of this toxic weed killer to come to an end.

California has been a trailblazer when it comes to protecting consumers. We’ve been out front in banning carcinogens, endocrine- and hormone-disrupting chemicals, and other toxic chemicals that work their way up the food chain or into our homes and environment. I’ve authored many of those bills. And this year I introduced AB 1963 to end the use of paraquat in California.

Paraquat is used mostly as an agricultural herbicide/weed killer, which means its use is concentrated in poor rural communities. Seasonal agricultural workers endure some of the most brutal environmental working conditions in the state; summer temperatures in California’s Central Valley can be unrelenting, hanging in the high 90s and low 100s, but can soar above 110 degrees for weeks at a time. This vital workforce is also composed nearly entirely of undocumented or first-generation Latino immigrants who work for low wages in fields saturated by paraquat, often without access to quality health care. That lack of health care should not be compounded by work-related Parkinson’s disease. Due to the nexus of the usage areas of paraquat (agricultural fields where paraquat is sprayed) and the neighboring communities that paraquat drifts toward (largely Latino communities that work the surrounding fields), paraquat’s effects are mostly borne by the Latino community.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly worsens over time. Slight tremors in the limbs devolve into immutable shaking and worsening balance eventually impairs a person’s ability to move or walk. Weakening muscles steal patients’ voices. While we don’t have a cure for the disease we can lessen the incidence rate for agricultural workers. And the science is telling us it is no small problem.

Studies have found that workers who handle paraquat are not only more than twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who apply other pesticides, but also revealed a 64% increase in the risk of Parkinson’s disease linked to exposure to paraquat. Quite simply, California cannot ignore decades of mounting evidence linking paraquat exposure to Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood leukemia.

For years, the Swiss-based (now Chinese-owned) chemical giant Syngenta, the primary manufacturer of paraquat, was aware of the health hazards associated with the chemical, including its correlation with Parkinson’s disease. Instead of disclosing this crucial information to the public and the EPA, Syngenta, much like Phillip Morris once did with tobacco, spent decades concealing crucial information and undermining independent research, which in Syngenta’s case showed a link between exposure to paraquat and Parkinson’s.

Knowing all of this and that there are safer pesticides available and widely used in other countries, it is inconceivable that paraquat’s use is still permitted here. It is time to join more than 60 other countries and end the sale of paraquat in California by passing AB 1963.

What are your thoughts on AB 1963? As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts on our budget, legislation, or any general comments or concerns. You can reach my District Office at (818) 558-3043, or by email at

Laura Friedman represents Burbank, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Franklin Hills, Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake.