Ryan Jackson, then 34, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, watched the work begin from the shore, before readying his own boat with a colleague, Kevin Johnson, and heading out onto the water. The men were tasked with tracing the chemical’s path by injecting a pink fluorescent dye into the water where the translucent toxin would be.
They were told the chemical, known as rotenone, was not toxic to humans, only to fish. They were told protective clothing was not necessary. But Jackson still recalls the potent chemical scent that accompanied the poison, and the way a steam vapor hung over the water despite below-freezing temperatures.
Before dawn, the bodies of tens of thousands of fish flapped at the water’s surface, convulsing violently before growing lifeless. They blanketed the canal like thick, silver algae, and marked one of the largest fish kills in U.S history.
Seven months later, while eating dinner with his family at an O’Charley’s restaurant in Mahomet, Ill., Jackson’s right hand began shaking uncontrollably — tremors that ultimately came to affect his entire body and have not stopped since. “Like you are sitting in an idle car, and you can sort of feel the engine vibrating,” he said.
Jackson, who grew up and went to college in Albuquerque, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder, at age 37. He is among just 2 percent of people with Parkinson’s whose symptoms show up before the age of 60. He is also one of a handful of people whose neurological disease may be linked to rotenone.
His colleague, Johnson, also would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease within two years of working with the chemical.