Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The paraquat poisoning problem carefully being ignored

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

JON HEYLINGS WAS 34 when he found the notebook that would upend his life. A junior scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries, Heylings happened upon it in 1990 as he was trying to solve a mystery. Trained in toxicology, he had been brought to the company three years earlier to lead a team that would work to reduce the health risks of ICI products that contained the pesticide paraquat. He had spent much of that time testing formulations that did appear to be safer. Yet to Heylings’s puzzlement, the company hadn’t put them on the market. Curious about how ICI had arrived at the chemical concentrations in the version of the pesticide it was selling, he did some research in the corporate archives. There he came across the old book of notes that Michael Rose, a senior scientist at the company, had handwritten years earlier.

Heylings knew Rose and had seen his findings, which were known within the company as the Rose Report. ICI had used the report to justify the concentration at which it added a chemical called PP796 to its paraquat products. But the numbers and graphs he saw jotted in the notebook didn’t support the conclusion that Rose drew in his official report. “When I compared the data in his report to the original pharmaceuticals clinical trial data, I found they were different,” Heylings told The Intercept. “You know, very different.” While an accurate analysis would consider all the outcomes in an experiment, Rose had “cherry-picked,” according to Heylings. “He took some data out, he put some data in.”

The young scientist decided that he had to tell his bosses about his discovery — very carefully. “It’s taking a risk to criticize senior managers of fabrication, you know?” he said recently. “This wasn’t something to be discussed over coffee.” So he wrote up a memo documenting the problems with the data and explaining that based on the evidence he had just found, the concentration of PP796, an additive intended to protect against poisoning, should be 10 times higher than the amount in the Rose Report — and 10 times higher than the levels in Gramoxone, ICI’s bestselling paraquat product. He sent the memo to his manager, who assured him that he would send it on to the senior agrochemicals team. Satisfied that he had done the right thing, Heylings, a self-described “company man,” stayed in his job for another 18 years.

Heylings’s 1990 memo and the Rose Report, first drafted in 1976, are among almost 400 internal documents reviewed for this investigation, which The Intercept conducted in collaboration with the French newspaper Le Monde. More than 350 of those documents were disclosed by Syngenta, the successor to ICI, and other defendants in the course of ongoing litigation over the companies’ responsibility for personal injuries due to paraquat exposure. The nonprofit organizations Public Eye and Unearthed, an affiliate of Greenpeace, which have extensively researched both paraquat and PP796, supplied about three dozen more. Together, the thousands of pages of scrawled notes, stained letters, and meeting minutes, many of which are marked “company secret” and “confidential,” tell the story of corporate intransigence in the face of a dangerous but profitable product — what Heylings describes as “a conspiracy within the company to keep this quiet.”

Syngenta maintains that the concentration of PP796 that Rose calculated — the concentration still used in many of the company’s products today — is safe. “Our detractors have willfully misrepresented and mischaracterized a limited number of documents, which ordinarily form part of an entire dialogue on product design, and focused on them, making false accusations related to the weight we give to cost when considering safety,” Saswato Das, a spokesperson for Syngenta, wrote in an email.

But in the more than 40 years since Rose made his consequential calculations, many of the company’s own scientists have questioned his assertions. And during that time, tens of thousands of people have died from paraquat poisoning.

The Speedy Killer

Paraquat is prized for the speed at which it kills weeds. The chemical begins to disrupt plants’ cell membranes and interfere with photosynthesis on contact, causing them to visibly wither within hours. Because it acts so swiftly, paraquat was heralded as an agricultural breakthrough when it was introduced in the 1960s. Since then, hundreds of millions of pounds of the herbicide have been used in the U.S. alone. More than 10 million pounds were sprayed on corn, soybeans, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables in 2017, the last year data was available. And paraquat use is now on the rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The problem with paraquat — or one of them — is that the chemical that so quickly and effectively kills plants is also extraordinarily toxic to humans.

Continue reading. There’s more, and it is — or should be, were we not so desensitized — shocking.

Written by Leisureguy

27 March 2021 at 3:25 pm

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