Feds Finally Address the Risks of Widely Used Ag Chemical
A 500-some-page draft assessment on an agricultural chemical from a federal agency is generally not the stuff of intrigue and redemption. But just such a document could upend the American corn industry, generate strict new regulations for a chemical company in the midst of being acquired by a Chinese firm for $43 billion, and clear the name of a researcher who nearly had his reputation destroyed.
The document published Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency reads, “This risk assessment concludes that aquatic plant communities are impacted in many areas where atrazine use is heaviest, and there is potential chronic risk to fish, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates in these same locations.”
It may be a jumble to you, but for Tyrone B. Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, that conclusion reads as vindication.
“The phrase ‘It’s about time’ comes to mind,” he told TakePart Friday when asked about his response to the report. For nearly two decades, Hayes has faced personal and professional attacks for saying much the same in published research and outspoken lectures and interviews.
Hayes began studying atrazine in 1999 by testing the widely used herbicide on amphibians—initially with funding from Syngenta, the Swiss chemical company that manufactures the weed killer and at the time a subsidiary of the corporation Novartis. He found that atrazine could cause sexual abnormalities in frogs, including frogs that developed both testes and ovaries—hermaphrodites—or that had multiple sexual organs that were deformed. Hayes and others are also concerned that atrazine, which is commonly found in the water supply in farming regions, could cause similar problems in humans. In 2012, Syngenta settled a long-running class-action lawsuit over contaminated drinking water in the Midwest. The company paid $105 million to reimburse water utilities for the costs of filtering out atrazine; 2,000 utilities were eligible for the funds.
Syngenta questioned the methodology of that initial study, for which Hayes’ lab received $125,000, and his relationship with the company deteriorated—but Hayes has continued his research on atrazine, which is the second-most-common herbicide in the United States. Now the EPA is citing the work of Hayes and others in the new assessment, which notes that atrazine can affect the sexual development of amphibians in a number of ways, including producing “gonadal malformations” like those Hayes documented. It’s unclear what will come of the assessment, but the agriculture industry is raising concerns that it will lead to a ban.
In response to the draft assessment, Timothy Pastoor, a toxicologist and former principal scientist at Syngenta, wrote in an email that the company “continues to support and defend the use of this important herbicide. Atrazine has been the backbone of corn weed control in the U.S. for more than 50 years. Extensive scientific research and numerous regulatory reviews have continuously proven the benefits and safety of this active ingredient.”
Nearly all of the 72 million pounds of atrazine applied to farmland annually are used to control weeds in cornfields. The No. 1 herbicide used in the U.S. is glyphosate, which has been in both the popular and the regulatory spotlight since the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said last March that it was probably carcinogenic to humans.
Hayes told me, “I’ve known all along” that atrazine posed a risk to wildlife. He said that Syngenta knew too. “I worked with these guys, I sat in a room with these guys, and they acknowledged that atrazine is bad,” he said. “My science, my students—the work that we did was so solid that they had to go after me with personal attacks.”
Those attacks, which ranged from buying online ads calling Hayes' credibility into question and targeting them to web searches about him to encouraging Berkeley to take disciplinary action against him, were the subject of a 2014 story in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv. She wrote about the company’s plans to undermine Hayes as revealed in internal documents made public through the 2012 lawsuits.
In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “needs adulation,” “doesn’t sleep,” was “scarred for life.” She wrote, “What’s motivating Hayes?—basic question.”
Syngenta, which Hayes characterized to TakePart as being run by “evil people,” got to him. As Aviv wrote, he became wary of talking with people about his research in the early 2000s and was concerned that his calls were being listened to. Colleagues began to think that he had lost his objectivity—a notion that the long, ranting emails he sent to numerous recipients at Syngenta support.
In one 2008 email, published on the website atrazine.com by Syngenta, Hayes wrote, “I know for a fact you have all been warned about communicating anything to me...rumors that I record phone and personal conversations, that I have access to emails and conference calls...rumors that I have contacts inside the company...even rumors that I have planted listening devices on some of you at meetings that have made it back to your office and homes...Not to worry, many crazy people are paranoid...I always say, the secret to a happy successful life of paranoia, is to keep careful track of your persecutors.” The emails drift wildly and might include references to his research, Syngenta’s products, Hayes’ dreams, pop culture, a heavy does of rap lyrics—in which he uses asterisks to censor even mildly offensive words—some of which depict sexual imagery. In one email, he rewrites the lyrics to LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells”: “tyrone b hayes is hard as h*ll!”
Objective or not, Hayes’ work was reviewed alongside hundreds of other toxicological studies in the EPA assessment to reach the conclusion that atrazine use “poses chronic risks or potential for chronic risks” to wildlife, as Emily Marquez, an endocrinologist and staff scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, a group that advocates for stronger pesticide controls and chemical alternatives, said in a statement. Before the EPA assessment was released, “I didn’t understand how we could keep on using atrazine” when research had shown it can cause sexual development problems in not only amphibians but reptiles, birds, and mammals, she told me in an interview.
Marquez said it’s likely the body of work from Hayes and other researchers on atrazine’s effects “is going to be vindicated” with this assessment.
Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, an industry trade group, told the website Hoosier Ag Today that the EPA is determined to ban the herbicide. “In the coming weeks, we will be urging farmers and others who care about our rural economy to contact the EPA and to tell them to base their decision on sound science,” he said.
The push to discredit the EPA’s findings is afoot: The draft assessment, according to Syngenta’s Pastoor, “contains a number of unjustifiable determinations based on unsound science that, if uncorrected, could have a significant impact” on the agency’s decision whether or not to continue to allow the herbicide’s use. In finalizing the assessment, Pastoor said the agency “should give proper consideration and weighting to studies that are crucial to a scientifically justified conclusion.” He said the current version, for example, “grossly over-predicts water concentrations and therefore overestimates risks.”
Hayes, who said the assessment is a big, important step, isn’t expecting swift action from the government even if the final version of the assessment resembles the draft version.
“I’ll have a party” if the assessment leads to a ban or strict controls, he said. Hayes, who is known for monochromatic clothing, said, “I’ll stop wearing all black” if the EPA bans the chemicals. “I’ll change my wardrobe.”
But even if he doesn’t think the EPA will take such an action, Hayes is convinced that a ban is necessary. “Let me say unequivocally, without a doubt, we shouldn’t be using atrazine,” he said.