UC Berkeley Professor Dr. Tyrone Hayes was targeted by Sygenta’s campaign to discredit him. Since 1997 he has been running experiments suggesting that herbicide atrazine causes sexual deformities in frogs.
Pest Control: Syngenta’s Secret Campaign to Discredit Atrazine’s Critics
By Clare Howard
To protect profits threatened by a lawsuit over its controversial herbicide atrazine, Syngenta Crop Protection launched an aggressive multi-million dollar campaign that included hiring 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 a leading scientist critical of atrazine.
The Switzerland-based pesticide manufacturer also routinely paid “third-party allies” to appear to be independent supporters, and kept a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company.
Recently unsealed court documents reveal a corporate strategy to discredit critics and to strip plaintiffs from the class-action case. The company specifically targeted one of atrazine’s fiercest and most outspoken critics, Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research suggests that atrazine feminizes male frogs.
The campaign is spelled out in hundreds of pages of memos, invoices and other documents from Illinois’ Madison County Circuit Court, that were initially sealed as part of a 2004 lawsuit filed by Holiday Shores Sanitary District. The new documents, along with an earlier tranche released in late 2011, open a window on the company’s strategy to defeat a lawsuit that, it maintained, could have effectively ended sales of atrazine in the United States.
The suit originally sought to force Syngenta to pay for the removal of atrazine from drinking water in Edwardsville, Ill., northeast of St. Louis, but ultimately expanded to include more than 1,000 water systems covering six states.
For Syngenta, with $14.2 billion in sales last year, the stakes of the litigation were high. Atrazine has been popular with farmers since the 1950s because it is effective and economical in killing a broad spectrum of weeds. About 80 million pounds are used in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most of it applied to corn in the Midwest. Three-quarters of all U.S. corn is treated with atrazine, but atrazine is also used on golf courses, Christmas tree lots and public lands.
The herbicide has long stirred controversy at the EPA, which approved its use as recently as 2003 but plans to launch another registration review this summer.
Research has shown that atrazine is prone to run off fields and contaminate water supplies. It also drifts hundreds of miles by air from sites where it has been sprayed.
Relatively few studies have examined atrazine’s health effects using human subjects. It has been shown to act as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it can block or mimic hormones, and some human studies have suggested that it may harm fetuses and reduce men’s sperm quality. An Indiana University study found that women who lived in areas with higher atrazine levels in water had children with higher rates of some genital birth defects (see sidebar).
The Holiday Shores case grew into a class action lawsuit, ultimately settled in 2012, after 8 years of litigation. While not admitting culpability, Syngenta agreed to pay $105 million last year toward filtration costs for more than 1,000 community water systems in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio.