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Farmers Fighting for Their Health: Taking on Chemical Companies and Transitioning to Sustainable Ag

The Ecologist reported recently that three French farmers have successfully sued chemical companies for cancer and Parkinson's disease that resulted from their occupational use of pesticides-an issue as widespread as it is under-reported. A cereal farmer with 100,000 hectares of land in in the Vosges region, Dominque Marchal was the first farmer to have his leukemia associated with his daily pesticide use. His wife was determined to get to the bottom of the issue. From the Ecologist:

 She employed a lawyer to help her gather the scientific evidence and herself set about gathering invoices and receipts to list which pesticides her husband had been using in previous years. Then, from their own pesticide stocks and with the help of neighbouring farms, she was able to gather samples of each of the potential cancer-causing substances. Her lawyer helped her find a laboratory willing to analyse the contents, and when the results came back they showed that 40 per cent contained benzene, a substance not marked on any of the contents labels but that is known to increase the risk of leukaemia.

No farmer has succeeded in taking on Big Chem for their illnesses in the U.S. because it is especially difficult to get medical recognition for the disease-occupation correlation, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that exposure to certain pesticides increases the risk of illness. (See Washington University in St. Louis' epidemiological study that shows high rates of Parkinson's disease in the Midwest and Northeast, where agriculture and metal processing-two occupations that use chemicals associated with Parkinson's-are most prevalent. And the long term Agricultural Health Study focused on Iowa and North Carolina, which began in 1994, has found elevated risk for farmers of multiple myeloma and cancers of the lip, gallbladder, ovary, prostate, and thyroid.)

However, many farmers and rural Americans are taking note of the increasing rate at which their family members and neighbors are diagnosed with cancer and other diseases. Sandra Zellmer, who lost her mother, father and uncle, all farmers, to cancer between 2004-2008, wrote recently about the link between the herbicide atrazine and the pesticide DDT to the types of cancers that killed her family. Her findings echo the blockbuster piece on atrazine in the New York Times last summer, which brought attention to the issues posed by heightened exposure to and weak regulation of the weed killer, noting that "Laboratory experiments suggest that when animals are exposed to brief doses of atrazine before birth, they may become more vulnerable to cancer later."