March 5, 2024

Federal regulators are discouraged from speaking up about potentially dangerous pesticides, according to a former agency official.

Karen McCormack, a retired Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist who spent 40 years with the agency, told Al Jazeera’s investigative show Fault Lines that she believed the EPA was not fulfilling its mission to protect the public from harmful chemicals.

“In the last three decades that I have worked at EPA it has been very rare for a toxic pesticide to be taken off the market,” she told Fault Lines. “Just about every, every new pesticide application that is submitted to the agency is approved, no matter how high the risk.” As the Al Jazeera report notes, paraquat is banned in 58 countries but its use is on the rise in the United States.

The segment, which aired on Wednesday, featured reporting by the Guardian that revealed decades-long efforts by Syngenta to conceal evidence of how chronic exposure to the popular weedkiller paraquat can cause Parkinson’s disease.

The Guardian’s Paraquat Papers, published in 2022 in collaboration with the New Lede, exposed years of corporate efforts to cover up paraquat’s links to Parkinson’s disease, mislead the public, challenge published scientific literature and influence the EPA.

Al Jazeera’s new series, The Pesticide Playbook draws on thousands of internal corporate records that had not previously been made public.

Dr Deborah Cory-Slechta, a prominent researcher, told Al Jazeera: “There is a very strong and compelling body of evidence based on the epidemiology studies and what we know from animal models of Parkinson’s disease” that paraquat causes changes in the brain that lead to Parkinson’s.

As revealed by the Guardian, in 2005 Syngenta worked behind the scenes to keep Cory-Slechta from sitting on an EPA advisory panel, deeming her a threat to paraquat. Company officials wanted to make sure the efforts could not be traced back to Syngenta, the documents showed. The agency ultimately chose someone else for the panel.

In comments to the Guardian in October 2022, Syngenta denied paraquat caused Parkinson’s and said the weight of scientific evidence demonstrated no causal link between the chemical and the disease. When asked about the Cory-Slechta correspondence, a representative said: “We disagree and take exception to this mischaracterization.” A spokesperson for the EPA told the Guardian in 2022 thatscientific research “does not support” a causal relationship between the chemical and the disease. The EPA responded to the allegations laid out in the Fault Lines piece by telling Al Jazeera the agency was “committed” to ensuring its decisions were “free from unwarranted interference”.

McCormack described a culture of “regulatory capture” at the EPA and said that colleagues who spoke out in favor of more stringent regulations on pesticides were often sidelined.

“If you do decide to work for the [EPA] pesticide program and you go up against the agricultural interest, it will not be good for your career,” she said.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request from the Guardian for comment on McCormack’s statements.

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