How a Big Agribusiness Firm Infiltrated the EPA and Made a Mockery of Science
Photo Credit: Marcin Balcerzak / Shutterstock.com
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Earlier this year, in an exposé in The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv detailed the story of Syngenta, an agribusiness firm that was sued by the community water systems of six states in a class-action lawsuit over the firm’s herbicide atrazine.
Atrazine is the second most commonly used herbicide in the US and is used on more than 50% of all corn crops. It is one of Syngenta’s most profitable chemicals with sales at over $300 million a year. Banned in the EU, atrazine remains on the market in the US despite scores of scientific publications demonstrating its role in abnormal sexual development. Almost insoluble in water, atrazine contaminates drinking water supplies at 30 times the concentration demonstrated to cause severe sexual abnormalities in animal models.
Recently unsealed court documents from the lawsuit have disclosed how Syngenta launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to disrepute and suppress scientific research, and influence the US Environmental Protection Agency to prevent a ban on atrazine.
Tyrone Hayes, a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley has demonstrated in his research that atrazine leads to health problems, reproductive issues and birth defects. Hayes is a vocal proponent of legislative action to ban the dissemination of atrazine in water supplies. The court documents showed that Syngenta specifically attacked Hayes’ work with its smear campaign.
In addition to smear campaigns, Syngenta hired a private detective agency to look into the personal backgrounds of scientists on an advisory panel at the EPA, the judge presiding over the lawsuit, and Hayes. The documents also reveal a host of third-party organizations and independent "experts" who were on Syngenta’s payroll and supplied with Syngenta’s data in order to make public statements or write op-ed pieces in support of atrazine. Often, these experts were supplied directly with material that company employees edited or wrote.
It all started in 1997 when Hayes was employed by Syngenta to study atrazine, which was under review by the EPA. Hayes’ experimental research on the developmental growth of frogs began to reveal that even at levels of atrazine as low as 0.1 parts per billion (ppb), the chemical was capable of causing males to develop as hermaphrodites. Some males developed female organs and were even capable of mating with normal males and producing eggs. As reported in top peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS and Nature, at exposure to 0.1 ppb atrazine the frogs showed extremely reduced levels of testosterone and feminized voice boxes.
As Hayes amassed data, Syngenta downplayed his results, citing problems with statistics or asking him to repeat studies, often nitpicking or questioning his credibility or scientific skills.
In 2000, Hayes resigned from the panel. He continued to speak at conferences, publicizing his ongoing research in the lab. Meanwhile, Syngenta employees began to show up at conferences to publicly besmirch his data. Sporadically, the campaign turned into threats of violence. In a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Hayes said:
“Tim Pastoor, for example, before I would give a talk, would literally threaten, whisper in my ear that he could have me lynched, or he said he would send some of his 'good ol’ boys to show me what it’s like to be gay,’ or at one point he threatened my wife and my daughter with sexual violence.”
Shockingly, even though Syngenta settled the lawsuit for $105 million in late 2012 after eight years of litigation, it still maintains that amount of atrazine present in the water is much lower than would be required to cause damage. In an article in Forbes published a week after the New Yorker story, Jon Entine criticized Hayes and claimed that “after numerous follow up studies by the EPA and a score of scientists… evidence of endocrine related problems Hayes claimed to have identified… are nowhere to be found.”