American corporations prevent the regulation of pesticides

This is the story of the persecution of Tyrone Hayes, Professor of Biology at UC Berkeley, by the manufacturer (Syngenta) of an herbicide (atrazine).  Professor Hayes was asked by Syngenta to conduct research on atrazine in 1999.  Fifteen years later, New Yorker magazine has published a detailed account of Professor Hayes’ painful experience. (1)

Although Hayes was well aware of what Syngenta was doing to discredit him and his research, his suspicions have now been confirmed because of documents revealed by a legal battle.  Specifically, 23 Midwestern cities sued Syngenta for “concealing atrazine’s true dangerous nature” and contaminating their water supply.  The documents subpoenaed in those class-action suits revealed Syngenta’s campaign to undermine Professor Hayes’ credibility.  In 2012, Syngenta settled those suits (without admitting wrongdoing) by giving $105 million to 1,000 water districts to filter atrazine from their drinking water.

Science for sale

Pacific Chorus Frog, Creative Commons
Pacific Chorus Frog, Creative Commons

Professor Hayes has had an interest in frogs since he was a child in rural South Carolina.  He was fascinated by the transformation from tadpole to frog.  That childhood interest led to his primary research interest in amphibians.  So, when Syngenta asked him to study the affect of atrazine on frogs, it seemed to be an opportunity to improve and expand his research program.  Some of his graduate students were wary, but Hayes assured them that his work could not be compromised by the acceptance of the small fee ($125,000) from Syngenta.

It was not until Hayes and his team began to observe and report birth defects in the reproductive organs of frogs exposed to atrazine that he began to understand the risk he had taken in accepting that funding.  His formerly collaborative relationship with Syngenta scientists quickly deteriorated when he reported his findings.  He ended his formal relationship with Syngenta in November 2000, when it became apparent they were trying to prevent him from pursuing his research.

Then Syngenta began a relentless assault on his research and he, just as relentlessly, pursued his inquiries.  While Syngenta hired other “scientists” to discredit his research, Hayes and his team traveled the Midwest to gather samples of contaminated water to analyze in his laboratory.  They sent 300 pails of frozen water to Berkeley from Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming.  The more tests they conducted, the more evidence they found that atrazine caused profound deformities of the reproductive organs of frogs such as hermaphroditism which is the expression of both male and female organs resulting in sterility.  These deformities were observed at atrazine concentrations 30 times less than allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dirty tricks

Here is an incomplete list of some of the things that Syngenta did to discredit Professor Hayes’ research.  These activities were documented in the evidence subpoenaed during the atrazine suit.

  • Syngenta sent its employees to Hayes’ public presentations to ask rhetorical questions which cast doubt on the accuracy of his work, such as “Why can’t anyone replicate your research?”  Hayes says the answer to that question is that no one has tried.  Syngenta hired “scientists” who altered Hayes’ research methods and reported that their findings were evidence that replication was not possible.
  • Syngenta purchased search words on the internet so that any searches for Hayes’ research would send people to an advertisement that says “Tyrone Hayes Not Credible.”  Ironically, Syngenta is now using that same tactic to discredit the article in the New Yorker.  A search for “atrazine” sends the searcher to the “Atrazine Facts” website with leading articles attacking the veracity of the New Yorker article. 
  • The work journal of Syngenta’s head of “communications” contained a list of plans to ruin Hayes’ reputation.  One entry said, “set trap to entice him to sue.”  Another entry said, “investigate wife.”  Syngenta claims that some of the strategies on that list were not implemented.

The vast financial resources of Syngenta help to put these efforts into perspective.  Syngenta’s sales of seeds and pesticides are worth $14 billion per year and atrazine sales are $500 million annually.  They have the resources and the motivation to protect their product in the marketplace. 

The evidence against atrazine mounts

Meanwhile, more scientists began to report evidence that atrazine causes birth defects.  An epidemiologist reported that children conceived during the seasonal application of atrazine are statistically more likely to be born with genital defects.  Shortly after the publication of that paper, the New York Times published a big study about the extent to which the nation’s drinking water is contaminated with atrazine.  Both of these studies endured media attacks from Syngenta.

Jason Rohr, ecologist at University of South Florida and a member of the EPA panel which evaluated atrazine, criticized the “lucrative ‘science for hire’ industry.”  He wrote for Policy Perspective that “…a Syngenta-funded review of the atrazine literature had arguably misrepresented more than fifty studies and made a hundred and forty-four inaccurate or misleading statements, of which 96.5% appeared to be favorable to Syngenta.” (1)

Two other members of the EPA scientific advisory panel for atrazine review have written a paper (not yet published) complaining that the recommendations of the panel are ignored and that the EPA is placing “human health and the environment at the mercy of the industry.”  They conclude that “the single best predictor of whether or not the herbicide atrazine had a significant effect in a study was the funding source.”  (1) 

Getting away with it

Since Professor Hayes began to report the results of his study of the effects of atrazine on frogs there have been several reviews of atrazine by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Hayes and other researchers participated in those reviews.  The EPA has approved the continued use of atrazine after each review, most recently in 2012.  The next review is scheduled for this year.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2003.  The European Union uses the “Precautionary Principle” to evaluate pesticides for approval:  if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.”  (2)  In other words, the manufacturer of the pesticide must prove it is NOT harmful.  (Ironically, the city of San Francisco is legally obligated to use the Precautionary Principal for approved use of pesticides, although the city is using pesticides which the EPA considers “hazardous.”)

American federal law uses the opposite approach.  The Environmental Protection Agency must prove that a pesticide is harmful before banning that product.  The New Yorker explains in detail all of the legal limitations on the EPA in establishing such proof.  For example, the EPA is legally obligated to involve the industry in establishing the criteria for the review.  They are also legally obligated to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.  Syngenta claims that corn production in the United States would be drastically reduced if atrazine were banned.  Proving health and environmental consequences of continued atrazine use of equal economic value to corn production would be difficult.

These and other legal obstacles have rendered the EPA nearly impotent to regulate pesticides.  While it may be tempting to blame the EPA, lawmakers are largely responsible for tying their hands.  There are some 80,000 chemicals in the environment.  The EPA has banned only 5 chemicals since its inception in the 1970s (PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos, and hexavalent chromium; the ban on asbestos was overturned in 1991 [2]).

Syngenta is now represented on the federal Invasive Species Advisory Committee, which puts them in a position to influence the country’s policies regarding the eradication of non-native species using their products.  This seems to us a flagrant conflict of interest and a clear indication of the extent to which our government is controlled by industry.  Such appointments are discretionary and therefore cannot be blamed on legal requirements.  Rather they are more a reflection of the way money influences politics in our country.

The consequences

Atrazine is the second most widely used herbicide in the United States.  Only glyphosate (Roundup etc.) is used more often.  Atrazine degrades slowly in the soil and washes into streams and lakes where it does not dissolve.  An estimated 30 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with trace amounts of atrazine.

Atrazine use 1997
Atrazine use 1997

To our knowledge, atrazine is not being used by any of the ecological “restorations” of the public lands in the Bay Area.  Atrazine is used primarily—but not exclusively—for agricultural crops, most notably corn.  In California, about 23,000 pounds of atrazine (active ingredient only) were used on over 1 million acres in 2011. (3)

The fragility of truth

We can empathize with Professor Hayes.  Like him, we have been engaged in the effort to inform the public of the destruction of our public lands for 15 years.  And like him, we have been on the receiving end of a campaign to discredit and intimidate us into abandoning our effort.

The February 6, 2014 meeting of the Integrated Pest Management Program in San Francisco provides a recent example.  The director of San Francisco’s so-called Natural Areas Program told a roomful of her colleagues that criticism of her program’s herbicide use is “frankly nonsense.”  Since our sources of information about herbicides are exclusively Material Safety Data Sheets mandated by the EPA and the manufacturers’ labels, we consider this statement groundless defamation.  Admittedly, this is a trivial example, compared to the harassment endured by Professor Hayes.  The analogy is that both are an attempt to discredit and dismiss critics of pesticide use.

Professor Hayes’ reaction to his experience is similar to ours.  The more they attack him, the more determined he is to make his case.  He has been vindicated by being promoted to full professor in 2003 and other researchers have reported similar findings in humans.  Although he told the New Yorker that “the tide is turning,” atrazine is still on the market.

Likewise, we tenaciously pursue our mission to stop the destruction of our public lands.  It is now clear that our opinion of these projects is shared by the public as well as many scientists.  But we are not there yet.


(1)    Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation,” New Yorker, February 10, 2014

(2)    Wikipedia; “pesticides” is a global term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc.

(3)    “Summary of Pesticide Use Report Data, 2011,” California Department of Pesticide Regulation

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