Berkeley anti-atrazine crusader blames 'Big Ag,' set to sue, after university sacks research
Has ‘Big Ag’ finally nailed a long time nemesis? Or has an ideologically obsessed activist scientist with a long history of discredited studies finally fallen victim to his own bizarre behavior?

Article Highlights

  • Tyrone Hayes has become a thorn in the side of the chemical industry and an annoyance for regulators who have come to view his research methodology as shoddy.

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  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world.

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  • An EPA study concluded that atrazine boosts yields by 6 percent or more, saving corn farmers as much as $28 per acre.

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  • Atrazine is one of most scrutinized chemicals in history. There have been almost 7,000 studies of it over the past 40 years attesting to its safety.

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  • Hayes has led the international regulatory community on a wild goose chase for more than a decade, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

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These are the competing narratives in play as journalists try to make sense of reports last week that Tyrone Hayes, the University of California at Berkeley herpetologist who churned out study after study about the alleged dangers of a popular herbicide—research that many scientists and the federal government have found neither convincing nor reproducable—had lost research funding.

This saga began in 1999, when Hayes was working as a contract researcher for the chemical company Novartis to study atrazine (in 2000, Novartis spun off its agribusiness to form Syngenta, and today the companies are unrelated). Hayes claimed he found that the herbicide might cause hormonal abnormalities. Hayes and Novartis parted ways shortly there after; he steadfastly claims he was blackballed because of his findings.

Three years later, Hayes published a blockbuster study, claiming that atrazine, hailed by scientists for decades because of its low toxic profile, caused sexual abnormalities in frogs and speculating that it may cause problems in humans as well. Hayes set off a firestorm despite the fact that a much larger independent study released at the very same time found no meaningful link between atrazine exposure and abnormalities.

Over the past decade, Tyrone Hayes has become a major thorn in the side of the chemical industry and an annoyance for regulators who have come to view his research methodology as shoddy and his demeanor quirky—when they’re talking nice.

But as Hayes tells his story—and he has found a compliant vessel in Paul Basken, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education [whose article is behind a paywall]—the beleaguered amphibian expert has finally fallen victim to a 14-year campaign by Syngenta to personally savage him and his work.

It’s a powerful and disturbing storyline, if true: Big, bad multinational company out to destroy courageous, whistle-blowing scientist to protect sales of a profitable but dangerously toxic chemical, public health be damned. Basken, for one, bought it hook line and sinker, portraying Hayes as a cutting edge researcher with broad and admiring support among independent scientists. The conspiracy theory was immediately disseminated without a hint of critical analysis by the usual anti-chemical crusaders, such as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones. But what’s the real story?

Atrazine over time

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. The odorless white powder is used on dozens of crops, including more than half of the country’s corn, 90 percent of its sugar cane and two-thirds of its sorghum. It’s applied to control a wide range of broadleaf and yield-robbing grassy weeds that would otherwise choke a crop and starve it of nutrients, but do not harm the plant itself. It’s considered so comparatively gentle that it can be applied even after a crop’s first shoots appear above the ground.

An EPA study concluded that atrazine boosts yields by 6 percent or more, saving corn farmers as much as $28 per acre—more than $2 billion in direct economic benefits, which could be the difference between solvency and bankruptcy for many. In other words, it is effective and is certainly a moneymaker for its manufacturer. But does it pose serious health challenges to humans as Hayes and a small coterie of activist scientists contend?

Atrazine is one of most scrutinized chemicals in history. There have been almost 7,000 studies of it over the past 40 years attesting to its safety. This compares to the 100 to 200 safety studies generally required by the Environmental Protection Agency before registering a product.

“Since we concluded our last evaluation of atrazine in 2003,” the EPA writes on its website, “we have evaluated close to 150 published studies investigating a wide array of effects potentially relevant to human health risk assessment.”

The EPA’s assessment reflects the consensus by many scientific bodies around the world, including the World Health Organization and regulatory agencies in Australia, Canada the European Union’s safety review: atrazine has a short half-life, does not bio-accumulate in organisms, is not carcinogenic and study after study has shown it does not cause abnormalities and deformities at levels occurring in groundwater—a scientific consensus steadfastly rejected by Tyrone Hayes.

The case against atrazine rests largely on the integrity of the central body of research by Hayes, its chief critic. For example, a widely circulated joint polemic issued in January 2010 by the Land Stewardship Project and the Pesticide Action Network cites Hayes more than 50 times and includes a question-and-answer section with him in which he outlines his allegations.

While a hero to anti-chemical campaigners, Hayes has long been a perplexing figure to the broader science community. After his sensational 2002 study, government scientists and regulators were eager to do follow up experiments, drawing on his supposedly extensive data. But he was uncooperative—an oddly defensive reaction as scientists rely on data sharing and reproducible experiments to ensure that their results are not tainted or anomalous and policy decisions are grounded in ‘weight of evidence’ data.

The EPA was put in the untenable position of having hundreds, even thousands, of studies showing that atrazine was comparatively benign while one scientist, Hayes, blamed the herbicide for a decline in the worldwide frog population. Hayes claimed the supposedly shrinking number of amphibians was a canary in the mine for mysterious illnesses in humans. In fact, the decline of the frog population is a complicated phenomenon that may or may not be happening (much of the evidence is anecdotal) but which few mainstream scientists link directly to atrazine usage.

Under relentless attack by activists touting Hayes’ work, the EPA examined the frog allegations in 2007, concluding, “atrazine does not adversely affect amphibian gonadal development based on a review of laboratory and field studies, including studies submitted by the registrant and studies published in the scientific literature.”

The dying frogs theory seems largely relegated to the Berkeley lab. “Atrazine has been used widely in South Africa for the past 45 years, and our studies showed that Xenopus are doing equally fine in agricultural and nonagricultural areas,” zoologist Louis du Preez of North-West University in South Africa noted in 2010. African clawed frogs do not appear to be suffering from the herbicide in their native habitats. “If atrazine had these adverse effects on Xenopus in the wild, surely we would have picked it up by now.”

Threat to human health?

But the most explosive charge was Hayes’ belief, echoed by anti-pesticide activists, that atrazine could cause in humans. But where were the data?

To support that theory and as evidence that Hayes is being persecuted, reporter Basken bizarrely draws on an article published on a dubious website, Environmental Health News. EHN is run as an anti-chemical propaganda vehicle by John Peterson Myers, who the reporter positions as an independent and highly respected neutral observer. According to the EHN piece published in June, Syngenta has run an “aggressive multi-million dollar campaign that included hiring a detective agency to investigate scientists on a federal advisory panel [and] looking into the personal life of a judge.” In fact Myers is a controversial out-of-the-mainstream campaigning scientist and longtime crony of Hayes.

Both Hayes and Myers have tried over the past 15 years to pump what’s known as the “endocrine disruptor” theory. That’s a novel, widely circulated notion popular with the Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety, Natural Resources Defense Council and other anti-chemical activists, including a tiny but vocal minority of scientists, in part because mysterious illnesses can be claimed even in the absence of hard data. They’ve made a particular point of championing Hayes’ questionable findings.

According to these critics, chemicals like atrazine and Bisphenol-A (also much maligned by activists, but which a slew of new studies show is also comparatively benign) can be blamed for everything from cancer to obesity, retarded neurological development, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, infertility and disorders related to sexual development. Hayes’ deformed frogs were touted as a canary in the mine and a central piece of evidence.

These are catastrophic allegations, which if supported by the evidence would warrant immediate intervention. But the evidence falls short. Responding to alarm bells rung by activist scientists and DC-based lobby groups, the government in recent years has commissioned tens of millions of dollars of studies on the endocrine disruption hypothesis only to draw blanks.

In the case of atrazine, without any real data from Hayes or other research supporting his contentions, the independent government oversight and mainstream science community has rejected his relentlessly alarmist conclusions.

“Dr. Hayes claims not only that his laboratory has repeated the findings many times in experiments with thousands of frogs, but that other scientists have also replicated his results,” said Anne Lindsay, then deputy director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, in government testimony in 2005. “EPA, however, has never seen either the results from any independent investigator published in peer-reviewed scientific journals nor the raw data from Dr. Hayes’ additional experiments.”

Recently, Australia’s Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts—it’s EPA—carefully reviewed Hayes latest study, from 2010, finding the lab work flawed and recommending no change to its conclusion that atrazine is safe as used. The EPA concurs. Donald Brady, director of the EPA’s Environmental Fate and Effects Division, stated in a publicly released letter that the agency “could not properly account for the sample sizes and study design reportedly used by the Berkeley researchers.” That’s bureaucratize and science-speak for saying Hayes peddles junk science.

The emerging scientific consensus is that restrictions placed on atrazine have been too stringent, rather than not tight enough. Following an extensive review of the latest scientific studies, the World Health Organization moved in 2011 to raise the allowable levels of atrazine in drinking water by 50 fold.

Of course none of this contextualized reporting found its way into Basken’s embarrassing article, which portrayed Hayes as a hero-under-siege. The article also passes along some outright false statements, apparently because the reporter relied on Hayes as a reliable source and didn’t do his homework. He quotes Hayes as claiming Berkeley officials may have targeted him out of a “desire to protect a $25-million, five year research agreement between Berkeley and Novartis, a parent company of Syngenta.”

That’s an explosive charge. In fact, there is no five-year research agreement that Hayes’ work theoretically was endangering. The grant he referred to was from Novartis and dates back 15 years, to 1998, before Novartis and Astra Zeneca spun off their agri-businesses to form Syngenta. The grant expired by 2004.

That one-time grant aroused controversy at the time. Activist critics cited it as an example of a big corporation corrupting science at a public university—allegations dismissed after an independent investigation that cost the university almost a quarter of a million dollars. The Chronicle of Higher Education reporter could have easily dug out what really transpired by talking to university officials or even through a simple Google search. Instead he just passed along a discredited bogus allegation.

Hayes contends he has in effect been fired because he’s the ‘good guy’ fighting an uphill battle against the university and Big Ag conspiring against him. Although there is no clear explanation as to why the University of California froze his research funds, it’s more than likely administrators had just lost patience with his string of questionable studies.

 Excising Hayes’ phony “smoking gun” charge from the Chronicle of Higher Education article we are left with a much clearer and more factually based picture of what has probably gone down in Berkeley. By most accounts, Hayes is a celebrity obsessed and self-promoting (read his self-written Wikipedia page for a laugh) activist scientist who has a history of turning out questionable studies.

Skepticism about the integrity of Hayes’ research is compounded by his erratic professional behavior. For years he has been sending abusive rap like email barrages filled with salacious comments to Syngenta employees. For example, in March 2008, after Hayes apparently turned down an offer to meet directly with the company, he emailed an executive: “everywhere i go i cause a raucus; act like you know that’s how i do it m*th* f*ck*s.” Asked to desist, Hayes responded: “I told ya, you can’t stop the rage.” Syngenta was concerned enough by the fusillades that it filed an ethics complaint with the university that included an astonishing document with 102 pages of bizarre emails.

Like a zombie scientist, Hayes resurfaced again this past weekend. There he was in San Francisco as the signature speaker at a “save the frogs” event—part of an ongoing series of regular presentations he helps set up to preserve and promote his now threatened status as a ‘go to’ star source for anti-chemical campaigners. It was also announced that Hayes had retained a lawyer to challenge the university’s decision to freeze his research budget.

Pesticides such as atrazine present challenges for regulators. They provide huge benefits, including dramatically jumping yields and limiting ecological damage, which has cut production and food costs and led to more nutritious foods. But because of their potential toxicity when misused, prudent regulatory oversight is essential. That requires careful balancing. The government has to rely on the work of independent researchers. If ideology becomes more important than data than the public pays the consequences.

That returns us to the role of journalists, like Basken, in this fiasco. Why have journalists refused to provide a balanced perspective on pesticides and other chemicals? Simply stated, many reporters are poorly schooled in science. They often do not have the sophistication or inclination to apply weight of evidence criteria or critically parse science from ideology.

The EPA will soon be undertaking its regularly scheduled periodic review of atrazine, but Hayes data, long since discredited, will not be part of the process. Hayes has led the international regulatory community on a wild goose chase for more than a decade, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. In a world where public research funds are limited and dwindling, that borders on criminal.

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