(Beyond Pesticides, June 21, 2013) A scathing new investigative report shows that atrazine manufacturer, Syngenta Crop Protection, launched an aggressive multi-million dollar campaign in response to a class action lawsuit that threatened to remove the controversial herbicide atrazine from the market. The report reveals that the pesticide giant routinely paid “third-party allies” to appear to be independent supporters, keeping a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company. The company, the report finds, also purportedly hired a detective agency to investigate scientists on a federal advisory panel, looking into the personal life of a judge and commissioning a psychological profile of Tyrone Hayes, PhD, one of the leading scientists critical of atrazine, whose research finds that atrazine feminizes male frogs.
Recently unsealed court documents reveal a corporate strategy to discredit critics and to strip plaintiffs from the class action case. 100Reporters, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, obtained the documents from the lawsuit in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The campaign is spelled out in hundreds of pages of memos, invoices, and other documents from the Illinois’ Madison County Circuit Court, which were initially sealed as part of a 2004 lawsuit filed by Holiday Shores Sanitary District. The new documents open a window on the company’s strategy to defeat a lawsuit that could have effectively ended sales of atrazine in the United States.
The lawsuit originally sought to force Syngenta to pay for the removal of atrazine from drinking water in Edwardsville, Ill., northeast of St. Louis. The case ultimately grew into a class action lawsuit, which was settled in 2012, after eight years of litigation. While not admitting culpability, Syngenta agreed to pay $105 million last year for more than 1,000 community water systems in 45 states that have had to filter the toxic chemical from its drinking water.
According to the report, Syngenta defended its actions, describing the suit as an attempt to end atrazine sales in the United States. The demands of plaintiffs to receive reimbursement of their cleanup costs, the company wrote in an email, “would have effectively banned the use of this critical product that has been the backbone of safe weed control for more than 50 years.”
Payments to Third Party Allies
According to memos and emails between Syngenta and the public relations firms it hired, the company secretly paid a handful of seemingly independent academics and other “experts” to extol the economic benefits of atrazine and downplay its environmental and health risks. Court documents obtained through the FOIA include a “Supportive Third Party Stakeholders Database” of 130 people and organizations the company could count on to publicly support atrazine, often for a price. Perhaps most troubling is that financial ties to the company were not disclosed. Some examples, cited in the report, include:
- According to an April 25, 2006, email, Don Coursey, Ameritech Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian nonprofit focused on environmental regulations, collected $500 an hour from Syngenta to write economic analyses touting the necessity of atrazine. Syngenta supplied the data he was to cite, edited his work, and paid him to speak with newspapers, television and radio broadcasters about his reports, without revealing the nature of his arrangement with the corporation.
- Syngenta paid $100,000 to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a nonprofit with a long history of promoting pesticides and downplaying pesticide hazards, for support that included an Op-Ed piece criticizing a New York Times article on atrazine. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times wrote a story on atrazine as part of its toxic waters series in 2009, which ACSH president and founder Elizabeth Whelan derided as “All the news that’s fit to scare.”
- Steven Milloy, publisher of junkscience.com and president of Citizens for the Integrity of Science requested a grant of $15,000 for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Education Institute for an atrazine stewardship cost-benefit analysis project in a December 3, 2004 email. In a letter dated Aug. 6, 2008, Mr. Milloy requested a $25,000 grant for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research. According to documents, in an email on that date, he wrote, “send the check to me as usual and I’ll take care of it.”
Stifling the Science
Dr. Hayes began his atrazine research in 1997 with a study funded by Novartis Agribusiness, one of two corporations that would later form Syngenta. When he got results Novartis did not expect or want, he received backlash from the industry. Attempts were made to stall his research, and funding was withheld. It was a critical time, as EPA was close to making a final ruling on atrazine. Hermaphroditic frogs would not help the chemical company’s cause. Dr. Hayes continued the research with his own funds and found more of the same results, whereupon Sygenta offered him $2 million to continue his research “in a private setting.” A committed teacher with a lab full of loyal students, Dr. Hayes declined the offer and proceeded with research that he knew had to remain in the public domain. With other funding secured, he replicated his work and released the results: exposure to doses of atrazine as small as 0.1 parts per billion (below allowed regulatory limits), turns tadpoles into hermaphrodites — creatures with both male and female sexual characteristics. When his work appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sygenta attacked the study, starting an epic feud between the scientist and the corporation
The court documents show that the company conducted research into the vulnerabilities of a judge and Dr. Hayes’ personal life. Syngenta’s former head of communications, Sherry Duvall Ford, ranked strategies that Syngenta could use against Dr. Hayes in order of risk, according to her notes from Syngenta meetings in April 2005. One possibility: offering “to cut him in on unlimited research funds.” Another: Investigate his wife. The company even commissioned a psychological profile of Dr. Hayes. In her notes taken during a 2005 meeting, Ms. Ford refers to Hayes as “paranoid schizo and narcissistic.”
In response to a question about why it commissioned a psychiatric profile on Dr. Hayes, the company issued a statement saying:
“In its defense of atrazine Syngenta focused on the science and the facts. And the scientific facts continue to make it clear that no one ever has been or ever could be exposed to enough atrazine in water to affect their health. Despite eight years of litigation, the plaintiffs were never able to show that atrazine ever caused any adverse health effects at levels to which people could be exposed in the real world. Most water systems involved in the litigation had never detected significant amounts of atrazine in their water.”
However, research has found that atrazine can spike at extremely high levels that go undetected by regular monitoring. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers an annual average atrazine level of below 3 parts per billion to be acceptable for human consumption, although studies have shown adverse health impacts below EPA’s “safe” levels. In a 2009 analysis by National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), atrazine was discovered in 90% of the time in 139 municipal water systems tested; of these water systems, 54 had at least one spike above 3 parts per billion. Furthermore, a 2009 study by Paul Winchester, MD linked birth defects to time of conception, with the greatest impact on children conceived when concentrations of atrazine and other pesticides are highest in the local drinking water.
A more recent 2012 study reveals that even minute doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as atrazine, can have significant effects on human health. Several of the report’s authors have been criticized by industry representatives, other scientists, and even politicians because they have become outspoken advocates for testing, regulating, and replacing endocrine disrupting compounds. The scientists, however, say they feel compelled to speak out because regulatory agencies are slow to act and they are concerned about the health of people, especially infants and children, and wildlife. As Dr. Hayes succinctly states: “I went to Harvard on scholarships. I owe you! I did not go to school to let someone pay me off to say things that are not true.”
Dr. Hayes recently spoke at Beyond Pesticides’ 31st National Pesticide Forum in Albuquerque, NM. Watch him discuss his research on the impact of pesticides on frog deformities and its implications for human and environmental health, along with first-hand accounts of his hurdles with the pesticide industry in his keynote presentation, Protecting Life: From Research to Regulation.
Read the full report: Syngenta’s campaign to protect atrazine, discredit critics
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.