The European Food and Safety Authority EFSA is involved in a scandal of major proportions. Investigation shows EFSA's management rejects solutions to better assess the links between Parkinson's disease and neurotoxic pesticides. Pesticides can indeed cause serious damage to our brain and some are directly linked to the debilitating Parkinson’s disease. International experts agree that the current pesticide assessment barely takes this into account while some EFSA experts agree. Whose interest is the EFSA management representing?
Damage to the brain is a very serious and irreversible matter. Expert neurologists warn of a Parkinson’s epidemic. (1) They link this to the use of pesticides and demand swift action (2). In the Netherlands where a lot of pesticides are used in flower bulb production and many local residents and farmers' families are exposed this has led to a heated public debate with active involvement of medical experts. The Parkinson’s Association has collected disturbing stories of victims who worked with pesticides and contracted the disease, often at a young age. Together with a range of health and environmental organisations and the main trade union, they presented a social manifesto on pesticides to demand better protection of workers, farmers and residents. (3)
Damage to the brain does not occur overnight. Parkinson’s specialist Professor Bas Bloem from Radboud Medical University Nijmegen explains it as follows: “The brain has a large reserve capacity. As a result of this reserve capacity, neurological symptoms do not occur until very extensive damage has occurred in the brain. In the concrete example of Parkinson's: only when about 60 to 70% of the nerve cells in the relevant brain region have been damaged. Neurological symptoms are thus a very late phenomenon.”
The Dutch National Health and Environment Institute RIVM concluded already in November 2021 that the current pesticide evaluation is insufficient: “The data requirements for active ingredients in pesticides do not include standard information regarding the effects of these substances on the nervous system. The current testing guidelines also do not provide sufficient insight into whether a substance can cause small inconspicuous changes in the brain that can lead to diseases such as Parkinson’s.” and proposed possible solutions. (4) The Dutch authorities decided to send a request to EFSA to look into this.
EFSA agreed to organise a conference on the subject, and this took place on 7-8 September 2022. A total of 49 experts from many countries participated, including six from EFSA. They came to a very clear conclusion.
“Overall, there was broad consensus that the currently existing procedures, that are part of existing regulatory actions, are likely to give us an inadequate insight into the actual neurotoxic actions of specific pesticides for the substantia nigra, and consequently, offer an inadequate assessment of the risk of developing Parkinson's disease in case of human exposure.”
There was also broad recognition that better experiments are necessary, and how they should be designed: “Additionally, there are clear ideas on how to perform experiments that will inform an improved screening procedure; this involves both improved in vivo experiments and the search for reliable in vitro alternatives.”
For some reason, this document doesn’t seem to be available on the EFSA website. So you can find it here. (5)
Clear conclusion, action needed
In April 2023, EFSA published a € 3.5 Million call where scientific organisations are invited to do additional research, exclusively focussed on in vitro methods. (6) However ….. it is not exactly what is needed to make urgent progress to protect health. Those who were hopeful that things would finally change for the good are very disappointed. No use, not in line with what was agreed is the short version.
The Dutch National Health and Environment Institute RIVM informed the agriculture minister on the 18th of April: “Recently, EFSA published the call for tender, which describes in detail what the research should focus on. The call is not in line with the ambitions expressed during the workshop, but focuses exclusively on repeating research previously commissioned by EFSA on mitochondrial respiratory disruption by plant protection products. Thus, for RIVM, the current scope of the project is too limited to solve the underlying problem, the missing assessment framework for the identification of neurodegenerative substances.” (7) The Radboud University Nijmegen, the RIVM and the Dutch pesticide authority Ctgb wrote a joint letter to EFSA to express their disappointment and to inform them they will not send a proposal to participate. “In our opinion, the current call for tender and the work it foresees to cover does not address the challenges that were identified during the workshop and therefore does not contribute enough to the ultimate goal of being able to assess the risk of chemical exposure related to neurodegenerative diseases.” (8)
This leaves us with a very important question. Why did the EFSA management distort the general scientific consensus and make a call that focuses only on some mechanisms of neurotoxicity? What is urgently needed is to develop methods that allow to assess the true consequences of exposure to neurotoxicants? This move by the EFSA board will waste many precious years and prevent urgent and necessary changes in the pesticide assessment process. As a result, many people will be exposed to pesticides that can damage their brains. We think this is a very serious issue and have asked EU Health Commissioner Kyriakides to take swift action, both to sort this issue and to look into the EFSA management. (9)
Hans Muilerman, senior chemicals officer at PAN Europe said: "It is a common strategy at EFSA: instead of immediately developing a new test guideline based on the available scientific knowledge, they make sure no improvement will take place in the coming 10 years: they ask for a multi-year study, introduce methods that are cheap for industry but still in infancy and then claim more research is needed and citizens remain unprotected. It is exactly what happened for the exposure to mixtures of pesticides: EFSA was asked to develop a method 18 years ago, we are still waiting and the cocktail effect keeps being unregulated."
The scandal in bullet points:
EFSA is blocking effective research into neurotoxicity:
- Experts agree that damage to the brain (neurotoxicity) is not properly addressed in the current pesticide assessment.
- Neurologists raise the alarm over a sharp rise in Parkinson's disease - also at an early age - and suspect pesticides play an important role.
- Independent research into pesticides and cocktail effect shows alarming results.
- The Dutch RIVM (National Health Institute) proposed to look into this and the Dutch minister forwarded the request to EFSA.
- In a 2022 EFSA conference experts unanimously agreed there is a problem and came up with proposals.
- EFSA promised to organise a call to address this gap in the regulation.
- They placed a call in spring 2023.
- This call is not what was agreed upon: it is very limited and repeats what is already known.
- Radboud University and Dutch authorities RIVM and Ctgb have complained that this will not solve the problem.
- So now nothing happens.
- PAN Europe has asked EU Health Commissioner Kyriakides to address this very serious issue.
(1) The Emerging Evidence of the Parkinson Pandemic, E Ray Dorsey, Todd Sherer, Michael S Okun, Bastiaan R Bloem, 2018
(2) Neurodegeneration in a regulatory context: The need for speed, Science Direct, March 2023
(3) Dutch Social Manifesto on Pesticides, April 2023
(5) Workshop on the EFSA NAMs Project on Environmental Neurotoxicants, 7-8 September 2022, text agreed on 25 October 2022)
(7) Letter from Dutch National Health Institute RIVM to Dutch minister, 18 April 2023
(8) Letter from Dutch National Health Institute RIVM to EFSA, 17 July 2023 (in our possession)
(9) Letter PAN Europe to EU Health Commissioner Kyriakides, 10 October 2023