University College Cork (UCC) researchers are examining a potential link between Parkinson's disease and pesticide and herbicide use by farmers in Ireland.

The research follows evidence of the connection among farmers in a wine-producing region of France and flower-growing regions in the Netherlands. There have also been examples and legal cases taken by impacted farmers in the US.

In Ireland, questions have been raised by the Cork Parkinson's Association which says within a small area in Cork alone, there are four pairs of farming father and sons who are suffering with Parkinson’s disease, all of which have had exposure to pesticides and herbicides in their lifetimes.

Farmer cases

Cork Parkinson's Association chair Tony Wilkinson says the group has begun to notice a pattern within the farming community and they now want this investigated further.

UCC researchers are investigating a potential link between pesticide use and Parkinson's disease in the farming community. \ Philip Doyle

“When I looked at our membership, I realised that a large proportion of membership was in the farming community and this made me realise that there was something not right here.

“And then what really threw it for me was the fact that there was a case of a father and son in the farming community. That surprised me, but then again, when I looked further into it, within our Cork area, there are four father and sons in farming with Parkinson's,” he said.

Wilkinson said he contacted the Parkinson's disease research cluster at UCC and asked if they would be interested in investigating the association’s concerns.

The UCC team decided to take Wilkinson up on his request and have commenced investigating the potential link, with findings expected in the next six to nine months.

The UCC researchers launched a survey on Parkinson’s and farming at last month’s National Ploughing Championships.

Links in the farming community

Head of the UCC department of anatomy and neuroscience professor, Aideen Sullivan, is part of the university’s Parkinson's specific research group.

Speaking on the potential higher prevalence in farmers, prof Sullivan said: “Now, there are peer reviewed studies from elsewhere in the world, but this would be as I said, the first unbiased study here in Ireland looking at the links in the farming community.

“There have been studies on crop sprayers, the large-scale use of pesticides on crops being linked to a higher incidence of Parkinson's and another study in France but it [has] never been studied in Ireland.”

One of the first signs of Parkinson's disease is “disorder of movement”, says UCC professor Aideen Sullivan.

Prof Sullivan went on to explain that people will generally present with “disorders of movement” as a first sign of Parkinson's.

She said research studies in laboratories show that if particular pesticides are applied to cells, they specifically target dopamine neurons, indicating a neurological impact.

The UCC team has been in touch with the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and Teagasc as they investigate the connection further.


While the outcome of the UCC investigating is awaited, Tony Wilkinson says there needs to be improved awareness within the farming community on the need for the correct use of personal protection equipment when handling and spraying pesticides and herbicides.