Widely-used Herbicide in Israel Linked to Parkinson's Stirs Debate

The Ministry of Agriculture opposes a ban on the pesticide, paraquat, because they consider it crucial to farming

The herbicide is used to grow oranges.
Haim Taragan

A pesticide, suspected of increasing the risk of Parkinson’s disease, is widely used in Israel despite the fact that the health and environmental protection ministries have recommended halting its use.

The Ministry of Agriculture opposes a ban on paraquat because it views the pesticide as crucial to farming and says there is an absence of suitable alternatives.

In Israel paraquat, an herbicide, is widely used in vineyards and citrus groves, and in potato and cotton fields.

A few months ago the Health Ministry prepared an opinion recommending that use of the substance be stopped. Not only does it poison those using it, wrote the ministry, but also cited studies on laboratory animals and among agricultural workers suggesting a link between paraquat and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. In laboratory animals exposure to the substance caused behavioral changes that were similar to the symptoms of Parkinson’s in human beings.

In a study conducted in the United States it was found that workers using paraquat were 2.5 times more likely to contract Parkinson’s.

The Environmental Protection Ministry wrote that the substance should not be used due to its very serious and damaging effects on health, including many cases of death.

A study conducted in the Negev found a link between the percentage of Parkinson’s patients in the communities and their proximity to agricultural areas where substances such as paraquat were used. In these communities there may be up to 50 percent more Parkinson’s sufferers.

The findings were presented Dr. Yair Zlotnik of the neurology department of Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, at a professional discussion on the issue held last week by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Zlotnik stressed that these findings don’t necessarily prove a causal connection between the disease and use of the substance, but demonstrates a connection between living near these agricultural areas and an increase in morbidity.

Zlotnik said that the limitations of the study include an absence of precise information about which pesticides were used, and an absence of information about the patients’ ethnic origin and history. Parkinson’s can also have genetic causes, which is why the patients’ origin is very important.

The Agriculture Ministry noted the difficulty in discontinuing use of the substance due to an absence of suitable alternatives.

The Agriculture Ministry responded that “the ministry is reexamining 50 active ingredients in over 100 pesticides that are presently approved for use. In this context the ministry is examining the advantages and disadvantages of parquat, which is approved in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, is very helpful against a wide variety of weeds, disintegrates quickly after use, without leaving any vestiges in the plant. The ministry has not yet made a decision, and the attempt to influence its opinion via the media is wrong and unprofessional.”

Paraquat was banned a decade ago in the European Union.

In the United States the substance can be used only by workers who have received special training. In Israel there is no similar restriction on the agricultural use of the substance.