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Independent Scientist vs. Chemical Giant

Dr. Tyrone Hayes continues battle against Syngenta’s widely used herbicide, atrazine.

May 20, 2014
Jay Greathouse & Liz O’Garvey - Contributing Writers , Maui Weekly

University of California Berkeley Professor of Integrative Biology Dr. Tyrone Hayes presented "Silencing the Independent Scientist" at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 15, in the Henry Perrine Baldwin High School Auditorium in Wailuku. Hawai'i SEED and The MOM Hui hosted the event.

He was preceded by Maui County Councilmember Elle Cochran, Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang and Paul Towers from the Pesticide Action Network office in California.

The evening's presentation closed with a question-and-answer period involving a panel composed of all four speakers.

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Dr. Tyrone Hayes appears to be the loudest voice, if not the only voice, speaking out against atrazine, a herbicide made by Syngenta.

"We are thrilled to be hosting Dr. Hayes in Hawai'i for a five-island speaking tour, especially on the heels of the recent New Yorker Magazine expose vindicating his claims that for the last 15 years, chemical giant Syngenta has waged a campaign to discredit him and his peer-reviewed findings," Hawai'i SEED President Jeri Di Pietro said in an event announcement press release. "In light of Syngenta's current litigation against the County of Kaua'i and their aggressive campaign to discredit Dr. Hayes, obvious parallel lines can be drawn about the threat to the independent research community and communities protecting their environment."

If nothing else, this statement expresses the highly polarized nature of the claims both for and against the herbicide atrazine and its corporate producer, Syngenta. Both sides demonstrate the ability to produce evidence to support their opposing claims.

Atrazine has been detected in groundwater throughout the state, according to Hawai'i Department of Health data. On Maui, it's been detected in Kihei, Pu'unene and Pa'ia. Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants in drinking water.

Millions of Americans are exposed to the chemical herbicide. It is the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S. behind Monsanto-produced glyphosate.

In 1998, Syngenta, based in Basel, Switzerland, and one of the largest herbicide manufacturers in the world, asked Dr. Hayes to conduct experiments on atrazine, which is being used regularly throughout Hawai'i, a review of sales records from the state Department of Agriculture shows.

When Dr. Hayes discovered atrazine implicated in severe environmental damage, his relationship with Syngenta (also the producer of the controversial herbicide paraquat) became strained. In November 2000, he ended his association with the company.

In material provided by Syngenta, it's suggested that the strain in their relationship with Dr. Hayes may have originated in Syngenta's inability to confirm Dr. Hayes' findings.

Continuing to study atrazine on his own, Dr. Hayes said he became convinced that Syngenta representatives orchestrated a campaign to destroy his reputation. Skepticism of Dr. Hayes' accusations persisted until an article appeared in Environmental Health News, in partnership with 100Reporters, drawing on Syngenta's own internal records.

Hundreds of Syngenta's memos, notes and emails were unsealed following the settlement in 2012 of two class-action suits brought by 23 Midwestern cities and towns that accused Syngenta of "concealing atrazine's true dangerous nature" and contaminating their drinking water.

Syngenta insists that "atrazine's true dangerous nature" originated with Dr. Hayes's research, which was presented during the lawsuits. Syngenta persistently pursues the claim that Dr. Hayes' research cannot be duplicated, a core requirement for something to be regarded as legitimate science.

Syngenta's campaign against Dr. Hayes has been characterized as "chilling," "sinister" and "character assassination." Dr Hayes' campaign against atrazine and Syngenta has been characterized as self-aggrandizing, lacking rigorous methodology and engaging in flawed or not replicated research from which Dr. Hayes claims personal fame and derives income.

Atrazine sales are estimated at about $300 million a year. It is inexpensive to produce and controls a broad range of weeds. An EPA study estimated that without atrazine, the national corn yield would fall by 6 per cent, creating an annual loss of nearly $2 billion.

The New Yorker Magazine article states that since the mid-1970s, the EPA has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than 80,000 released into in the environment, perhaps suggesting that the EPA cannot be depended upon to act in the general population's best interests.

Corporate pressure plays a significant role in the regulatory process and cost-benefit analyses are integral to decision-making. A monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments and shortened lives and weighed against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use.

EPA scientist Thomas Steeger told Dr. Hayes, "Your research can potentially affect the balance of risk versus benefit for one of the most controversial herbicides in the U.S."

This may be perceived as stating the obvious, as assessing the balance of risk verses benefit is the objective of this type of research.

When Dr. Hayes complained to Steeger that Syngenta had not reported his findings quickly enough, Steeger responded that it was "unfortunate but not uncommon for registrants to 'sit' on data that may be considered adverse to the public's perception of their products."

Dr. Hayes has since continued to study and speak about atrazine, and during his Maui presentation, showed that other scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans. His presentation also claimed that independent lines of evidence consistently show that atrazine disrupts male reproductive development.

In June 2003, many years before the lawsuit, Dr. Hayes paid his own way to Washington, D.C., to present his work at an EPA hearing on atrazine, where the agency evaluated 17 studies. Twelve experiments had been funded by Syngenta, and all but two indicated that atrazine caused no severe environmental damage. The rest of the experiments conducted by Dr. Hayes and researchers at two other universities indicated the opposite.

The EPA then asked Syngenta to fund a comprehensive experiment that would produce more definitive results. Darcy Kelley, a member of the EPA's scientific advisory panel and a biology professor at Columbia University, said that, at the time, "I did not think the EPA made the right decision."

The EPA approved the continued use of atrazine in the same month (October 2003) that the European Union Commission chose to remove it from the market. Since other related chemicals are still on the market there, it is difficult to assess whether atrazine was removed from the due to convincing science or political pressure from advocacy groups. The European Union Commission offers no clues other than to reiterate the uncertainty of the situation.

In 2009, a paper in Acta Paediatrica by Paul Winchester, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, reviewing national records for 30,000,000 births, found that children conceived between April and July, when the concentration of atrazine in area water is highest, were more likely to have genital birth defects.

Dr. Hayes believes that atrazine is the only variable in the mix that could produce these results. He presented recent studies from Environmental Health Perspectives and the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that found that mothers living close to water sources containing atrazine were more likely to have babies who were underweight or had a defect in which the intestines and other organs protrude from the body. Again, other variables may not have been considered.

In the New Yorker Magazine article referenced by both sides, Michelle Boone, a professor of aquatic ecology at Miami University, who served on the EPA's scientific advisory panel, said, "We all follow the Tyrone Hayes drama, and some people will say, 'He should just do the science.' But the science doesn't speak for itself. Industry has unlimited resources and bully power. Tyrone is the only one calling them out on what they're doing."

It does seem that Dr. Hayes appears as the loudest voice, if not the only voice, speaking out against atrazine. Large corporations feel protective about their vested interests. But these two facts may prove nothing beyond the fact of their own existence.

Dr. Pang, who shared the stage with Dr. Hayes, made it a point in his presentation that he perceives the greatest threat lies in the unknown effects of a huge combination of factors and variables. He admitted that atrazine contamination levels are below those indicated to be the cause of pathologies. He recommended more research.

As with the contentious issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it seems the public is again left to interpret and assess statements by both sides until overwhelming, peer-reviewed, hard science produces repeatable results and undeniable facts.



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