We confronted Syngenta and Chevron with the results of our research "How Syngenta’s bad science helped keep the world’s deadliest weedkiller on the market" and offered them the opportunity to comment.
Response from Chevron Chemical Company
(19 March 2021)
Chevron Chemical Company, which ceased operations more than 30 years ago, distributed Paraquat from 1966-1986. Chevron Chemical Company pioneered many product-stewardship programs that permitted customers to safely use its products, including Paraquat. These efforts included the first private poison-control hotline, the first child-resistant cap, applicator and farmer training programs, Paraquat poisoning-emergency treatment kits and physician guides, and product labeling that exceeded regulatory requirements. During that time, ICI, the manufacturer of Paraquat, elected to include an emetic in Paraquat as an additional safety measure to further reduce the risk of accidental or intentional ingestion. Chevron Chemical Company submitted all required animal and human clinical data regarding Paraquat to the United States EPA, which approved the emetic-containing formulation. At the time, EPA publicly commented that it was “apparent that everything that could be done had been done” by Chevron Chemical Company to advise the public “of the severity of the misuse of Paraquat.”
Response from Syngenta
(22 March 2021)
Jon Heylings’s allegations
At the heart of this matter is a fundamental disagreement between Jon Heylings, Greenpeace and a media-savvy American trial lawyer on one side and modern scientific and regulatory opinion on the other side. While it may sound appealing on first encounter, Heylings’s argument that increasing the level of emetic improves the safety of the product is overly simplistic; the reality is complex and modern medical and scientific opinion does not support Heylings’s viewpoint.
We have in good faith engaged extensively with Heylings over the last three years, and our scientists have invested hundreds of hours examining his concerns, corresponding and discussing them with him. He has brought his point of view to regulators and agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency and the FAO/ WHO, who have not changed their recommendation about the emetic after being contacted by him.
Medical opinion has evolved in the thirty years since Heylings first worked on this product. Today, eminent medical experts advise against high emetic levels based on concerns that they can increase toxicity. In addition, emetic-induced vomiting of paraquat can cause additional damage. Several studies indicate little correlation between higher added emetic levels and improved outcomes in deliberate ingestion cases. Heylings is now turning to the media because his views have not been accepted by Syngenta or the regulatory bodies he approached and are not supported by modern medical science as well.
We would like to point out that at no time during his 30-year span of employment and contracting tenure with Syngenta did Jon Heylings raise these issues with the EPA or any other regulatory body. It was only after the contract his company had with Syngenta ended that he began his collaboration with a U.S. plaintiff’s lawyer and Greenpeace. He has since contacted the EPA and FAO and they have not changed their position.
You should also know that he removed company documents without permission. These documents have not been made available to Syngenta.
We will make our response to Heylings public so that the world can see we deeply engaged in the scientific issues with him and that we have always put product safety first.
We are just one of the 377 companies worldwide that have registered paraquat for sale.
We’d like to point out that Syngenta has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing and commercializing safer paraquat formulations.
We reject any suggestion that in developing this product Syngenta and its predecessor companies had any motive other than to find the most appropriate level of emetic in paraquat to best address the risk from accidental and deliberate ingestion.
For more than 55 years, Syngenta paraquat products have been approved by many regulatory agencies as safe and effective, including several important OECD agricultural economies such as New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Japan and the United States, where they have helped millions of farmers provide food.
Paraquat and how it is packaged
Paraquat is used in major crops such as corn, soy and cotton around the world. Its unique mode of action reduces the need for conventional tillage. Not tilling the soil reduces soil erosion by 90%, increases the nutrients in soil, promotes biodiversity and allows soil to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. Paraquat provides significant economic benefits in developed and developing countries by increasing yields and annual incomes for farmers by up to US$ 1000 per hectare per year, and it reduces arduous manual labor.
Herbicides are meant to aid farming and not to be consumed, and any consumption, accidental or deliberate, can have tragic consequences. Working with regulators, Syngenta has adopted a series of measures to prevent accidental ingestion and deter intentional ingestion:
- Appropriately sized end-user packages to reduce the likelihood of needing to pour the product into another container.
- Stricter label warnings against transferring paraquat to a food or beverage container.
- Addition of a colored dye and an odor to help distinguish the product from a beverage.
- Implementation of paraquat-specific training for applicators.
Syngenta has led the continuous improvement of paraquat in the five decades since its invention. We have always followed the best available scientific and medical opinions.
Paraquat is highly toxic and has led to many deaths
Product safety is extremely important to us. We work continuously to improve formulations, design better packaging, and provide training on the safe use of our products. We also provide emergency medical advice globally. (To quantify this for you, we aim to train more than 8 million famers globally every year on proper use and storage of our products and have trained more than 42 million farmers already since 2014.) These efforts target safe handling of the product, avoidance of accidents and aim to deter the intentional misuse of the product.
We find it heartbreaking that people have been harmed through accidental or intentional ingestion of paraquat, a product that helps farmers produce food. We empathize with the pain of those who have lost loved ones. No one should ever have to deal with intentional loss of life of a near and dear one.
People take their own lives for complex social, environmental, or economic reasons. We need to look more closely at the reasons why people commit suicide and address them; suicides cannot be solved simply by removing one specific means. This is a global mental health crisis that requires more attention and resources.
We are aware that self-harm rates may be higher than average among farmers in developing countries. This may be due in part to the pressure on farmers, not least from factors outside their control such as the vagaries of weather and crop devastation caused by invasive weeds and pests. Our crop protection products such as paraquat, provide farmers with the ability to manage these challenges. It allows them to take control, protect their harvests and provide for their families.
Our products exist because of the fundamental benefits they bring, enabling farmers to grow food sustainably in both the developed and the developing world. Paraquat and similar products have led to an increase in food security and sustainability; they have reduced the existence of famine and hunger to the lowest levels in human existence. These products have greatly alleviated human suffering while also helping to mitigate the environmental impacts of agriculture.
Nearly 30 years ago, we requested that the FAO/WHO mandate the inclusion of an emetic in all paraquat formulations. Today, all Syngenta paraquat-containing products include the emetic PP796, a potent pharmaceutical that creates an urge to vomit, with the intent that any paraquat ingested is ejected. Any liquid paraquat-containing formulations from Syngenta today include a stenching agent, which produces a foul odor, necessitating some determination to consume it. In addition, all Syngenta paraquat-containing liquid formulations include a blue dye intended to differentiate them from beverages. Taken together, these measures ensure that paraquat cannot be easily mistaken for something else.
Almost all modern innovations – buildings, bridges, railways, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, machines, and crop protection products – have been used for suicide. We believe that society needs to address the root cause and focus on mental health issues, not deprive the world of important technology, which has improved overall human wellbeing.