Parkinson's disease strikes 60,000 people each year in the U.S. More
than a million Americans are living with the disease at any one time.
 More people suffer from Parkinson's than from multiple sclerosis,
muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's
Parkinson's is a progressive brain disorder that is almost always
fatal, but the suffering can go on for years. The disease usually
strikes people over age 60, but a few people get it before they reach
Parkinson's begins when a certain class of brain cells begins to die,
cells that produce a chemical called dopamine, which your body needs.
Dopamine serves as a chemical messenger helping to control muscle
activities. Loss of dopamine leads to the pro- gressive loss of
muscular control, giving rise to a variety of symptoms: stiffness,
tremor, slow movement, difficulty with balance, difficulty walking, a
stooped-over, shuffling gait. As the disease progresses, the patient
may develop difficulty speaking, symptoms of senility (dementia)
similar to Alz- heimer's, and severe depression.
In recent years, an effective medication, levodopa (known as L-dopa),
has relieved many of the symptoms of Parkinson's for many patients, at
least for a period of time. In addition, transplanting dopamine-
producing brain cells from dead fetuses into the brains of Parkinson's
sufferers has delayed the progression of the disease in some cases.
Nevertheless, Parkinson's remains a common but poorly-understood
The causes of Parkinson's disease have been debated for 150 years, with
A breakthrough occurred in the early 1980s when a group of young people
developed the symptoms of Parkinson's disease after taking an illegal
drug called MPTP, which is similar to the narcotic pain killer
meperidine (which is sold under the trade name Demerol). MPTP is
also similar in chemical structure to several pesticides and
Subsequently, symptoms of Parkinson's were induced in monkeys by
feeding them MPTP. This led the medical community to begin thinking
of Parkinson's as a disease caused by chemical exposures. Early studies
began to show a pattern: many people with Parkinson's have a history of
exposure to pesticides, especially insecticides and herbicides.[4-7]
However in the early 1990s, Parkinson's was linked to a gene in a few
Italian and Greek families, and this sent researchers down the
genetic trail in search of the cause of Parkinson's. Genetic causes of
disease are very fashionable at the moment and it is easier to find
research funds to study genes than it is to find research funds to
study the effects of pesticides.
This week the likelihood of a genetic cause for most Parkinson's
disease was effectively ruled out by the publication of a study of
nearly 20,000 twins. The study cohort, made up of white male twins
who served in World War II, was developed by the National Academy of
Sciences 35 years ago. Most of the members of the study cohort are now
in their mid-60s, so they have reached the age when Parkinson's begins
to appear. Of the 20,000 twins studied, 193 individuals were confirmed
to have Parkinson's. The study showed that identical twins do not get
Parkinson's any more often than two unrelated individuals. If the
disease had a genetic origin, then identical twins, who share every
gene, would both be expected to get the disease. This does not happen,
the new study shows.
The researchers reported that, "No genetic component is evident when
the disease begins after age 50 years. However, genetic factors appear
to be important when [Parkinson's] disease begins at or before age 50."
Thus fewer then 10% of Parkinson's cases -- only those that begin
relatively early in life -- have a genetic component.
That leaves environmental chemicals as the culprit for the vast
majority of Parkinson's, according to the researchers who conducted the
twin study. In announcing their results, they specifically pointed out
that the search for causes of Parkinson's should now re-focus on
environmental chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides.
The twin study should provide comfort to family members of Parkinson's
victims who have been fearful about their own future based on their
genetic relationship to the victim.
However, the new study provides cause for concern among farmers,
pesticide applicators, and people who live in farming communities where
regular exposure to pesticides is unavoidable. Since the late 1980s, a
steady stream of studies from around the world has shown again and
again that a common thread among victims of Parkinson's is a history of
exposure to insecticides and herbicides.[4-7,11-15] Most recently a
study showed that exposure to industrial solvents is linked to
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
THE NEED FOR CIVIC ACTION
by Gary Cohen and Nancy Evans
Many years have passed since the drinking water wells in Woburn,
Massachusetts were contaminated.
In one sense, the tragedy stands as a singular event in the history of
our nation. In an average middle class town, seven children died from
leukemia due to toxic chemicals in their drinking water. Lives forever
lost. A community forever scarred. A story captured in Jonathan Harr's
powerful book, CIVIL ACTION, and now released as a major Hollywood
In another sense, however, Woburn has become a familiar script that
reads something like this: Multi-billion dollar company poisons
community. People get sick and die. Corporation denies the problem as
long as possible, using its money to outlast desperate families seeking
justice. When loss of the court case looks likely, corporation settles
for an undisclosed sum in exchange for silence and a waiver of future
This script has been repeated over the years in Love Canal, Bhopal, and
in the bodies of DES daughters. Corporation names differ, but the
outcomes are similar. Human lives are just the cost of doing business.
The world goes on. After the damage is done, corporations crank up
their public relations machines to project an image in which they bring
"good things to life." Eventually the horror fades, replaced by images
of horrors from other places.
But what gets lost in the public's consciousness is the ubiquity of the
chemical assault in communities across the country. There are hundreds
of Woburns in the United States, where communities living next to
chemical companies, paper mills, computer manufacturers, military
bases, medical waste incinerators, and toxic dumps suffer an array of
health problems related to their toxic exposures. When residents seek
some kind of justice from these exposures, they are stymied by a
compromised regulatory system that regularly protects corporate
interests rather than public health. Contrary to conservatives' mantra,
the problem is not too much government. The problem is government too
much serving the needs of industry.
The public health crisis extends well beyond individual communities and
their polluting corporate neighbors. The reality is no place escapes
this toxic nightmare. These facts highlight the problem:
* There are fish consumption bans in 40 states due to mercury
contamination. In its latest report to Congress, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency warned that 1.6 million children and women are at
risk of mercury poisoning from even modest consumption of fish. (See
* High levels of dioxin in breast milk mean that newborns get 80 times
their lifetime "safe" dose of dioxin during their first six months of
life. In June, 1998, CONSUMER REPORTS published test results that
showed all the major baby food brands had alarming levels of dioxin in
meat-based products. Dioxin is an identified human carcinogen,
known to disrupt the hormonal system of the growing child. (See
REHW #390, #391, #414, #463.)
* According to a National Academy of Sciences report, 70 pesticides
that cause cancer in animals are allowed in commercial foods, as are 20
other chemicals considered probable human carcinogens. Other
pesticides permitted in food are known to interfere with the nervous
system, the immune system or the reproduction system. (See REHW
Children are the most vulnerable to this toxic assault since their
rapidly developing systems are more sensitive to these chemicals.
[22,23] Cancer now kills more children under fourteen than any other
disease. (See REHW #559, #588.)
We all live in Woburn. As a society, we are conducting an uncontrolled
chemical experiment on our children and future generations. While the
chemical industry continues to tout the safety of its products, every
child born in this country harbors a host of toxic chemicals in his/her
body. This is a profound violation of basic human rights and the
sanctity of life.
We don't need more Woburns to convince us we have a problem with toxic
chemicals and a regulatory and justice system that offers neither
effective regulation nor justice. We simply need the political will to
directly challenge the polluting companies and the government agencies
that protect them. Without such civic action, Woburn will be a never-
 See http://neuro-chief-e.mgh.harvard.edu/parkinsonsweb/Main/-
IntroPD/Intro.html (omit the hyphen at the end of the first line,
 J.W. Langston and others, "Chronic Parkinsonism in humans due to a
product of meperidine-analog synthesis," SCIENCE Vol. 219, No. 4587
(February 25, 1983), pgs. 979-980.
 R.S. Burns and others, "The neurotoxicity of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-
1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine in the monkey and man," CANADIAN JOURNAL OF
NEUROLOGICAL SCIENCE Vol. 11 (Supplement 1) (February 1984), pgs. 166-
168. And see J.W. Langston and P.A. Ballard, Jr., "Parkinson's disease
in a chemist working with 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyri-
dine," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 309, No. 5 (August 4,
1984), pg. 310.
 S.C. Ho and others, "Epidemiologic study of Parkinson's disease in
Hong Kong," NEUROLOGY Vol. 39, No. 10 (October 1989), pgs. 1314-1318.
 C. Hertzman and others, "Parkinson's disease: a case-control study
of occupational and environmental risk factors," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF
INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE Vol. 17, No. 3 (1990), pgs. 349-355.
 G.P. Sechi, "Acute and persistent parkinsonism after use of
diquat," NEUROLOGY Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 1992), pgs. 261-263.
 K.M. Semchuk and others, "Parkinson's disease and exposure to
agricultural work and pesticide chemicals," NEUROLOGY Vol. 42, No. 7
(July 1992), pgs. 1328-1335.
 Mihael H. Polymeropoulos and others, "Mutation in the alpha-
Synuclein Gene Identified in Families with Parkinson's Disease,"
Science Vol. 276, No. 5321 (June 27, 1997), pgs. 2045-2047.
 Caroline M. Tanner and others, "Parkinson's Disease in Twins,"
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 281, No. 4 (January
27, 1999), pgs. 341-346.
 Thomas H. Maugh II, "Chemicals Called Main Cause of Parkinson's,"
LOS ANGELES TIMES January 27, 1999, pg. unknown. See
(omit the hyphen) .
 K.M. Semchuk and others, "Parkinson's Disease: a test of the
multifactorial etiologic hypothesis," NEUROLOGY Vol. 43, No. 6 (June
1993), pgs. 1173-1180.
 J.P. Hubble, "Risk Factors for Parkinson's Disease," NEUROLOGY
Vol. 43, No. 9 (September 1993), pgs. 1693-1697.
 A. Seidler and others, "Possible environmental, occupational and
other etiologic factors for Parkinson's disease: a case-control study
in germany," NEUROLOGY Vol. 46, No. 5 (May 1996), pgs. 1275-1284.
 H.H. Liou and others, "Environmental risk factors and Parkinson's
disease: a case-control study in Taiwan," NEUROLOGY Vol. 48, No. 6
(June 1997), pgs. 1583-1588.
 J.M. Gorell, "The risk of Parkinson's disease with exposure to
pesticides, farming, well water, and rural living," NEUROLOGY Vol. 50,
No. 5 (May 1998), pgs. 1346-1350.
 A. Smargiassi and others, "A case-control study of occupational
and environmental risk factors for Parkinson's disease in the Emilia-
Romagna region of Italy," NEUROTOXICOLOGY Vol. 19, Nos. 4-5 (August-
October 1998), pgs. 709-712.
 Gary Cohen is the National Co-Coordinator of Health Care Without
Harm, an international coalition working to reform the environmental
practices of the healthcare industry. He is based in Boston. E-mail:
 Nancy Evans is the Executive Vice President of the Breast Cancer
Fund, San Francisco.
 Jonathan Harr, A CIVIL ACTION (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
 "Hormone mimics hit home," CONSUMER REPORTS (June, 1998), pg. 53.
 Douglas B. McGregor and others, "An IARC Evaluation of
Polychlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Polychlorinated Dibenzofurans as
Risk Factors in Human Carcinogenesis," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 106, Supplement 2 (April 1998), pgs. 755-760.
 Philip J. Landrigan and others, PESTICIDES IN THE DIETS OF INFANTS
AND CHILDREN (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993). ISBN 0-
 John Wargo, OUR CHILDREN'S TOXIC LEGACY; HOW SCIENCE AND LAW FAIL
TO PROTECT US FROM PESTICIDES (New haven, Connecticut: Yale University
Press, 1996). ISBN 0-300-06686-4.
Descriptor terms: parkinson's disease; neurological disorders;
morbidity statistics; dopamine; levodopa; l-dopa; genetic causes of
disease; pesticides; insecticides; herbicides; rural life; drinking
water; woburn, ma;