In the last Gilded Age, the railroad baron Jay Gould is supposed to have said about union sympathizers “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half”. In the current age, the same can be said of scientists. That’s the conclusion one draws from a depressing article in this week’s New Yorker by Rachel Aviv: A Valuable Reputation. It describes the travails of Tyrone Hayes, a biology professor at UC Berkeley, who has been trying to raise the alarm about an herbicide in extremely wide use, atrazine. His specialty is amphibians, and he has found that exposure to very low levels of this chemical can cause genital defects. The chemical’s maker, Syngenta, has been hounding him for the last 15 years with a smear campaign. If you hit this Google link, Tyrone Hayes, the first thing you’ll see today is a sponsored ad, “Tyrone Hayes Not Credible”.
This may seem familiar from the last 20 years of climate change denial, but the difference here is that there are actual documents describing their plan of attack against him. They came out in the discovery process of a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta. The company agreed to settle in July 2013 for $105M, most of which is to go to water treatment plants in communities affected. They are still selling the chemical, and will bear no further liability. Syngenta has annual sales of $14.5B, so this is a less than 1% hit to them.
The documents detail how the company hired several different PR firms to attack Hayes, and commissioned many other studies that showed no health effects. They had people follow him from conference to conference, and ask heckling questions at the end of his talks. They bought an economist to say that banning atrazine would be a catastrophe for corn growers.
This all began in 1997 when they commissioned Hayes to look at atrazine’s effects on frogs. He was a rising star in the field at the time. Frog populations all across North America have been in decline, so this was an important question. Hayes found quite strong effects, and quit accepting their money. They then looked for more friendly researchers, and found many.
They were also able to derail EPA efforts to examine the chemical by means of a Bush-era (2003) law that said that all regulations must pass a cost-benefit analysis. An unsurprising thing about such analyses is that the company reaps the benefits while the public bears the cost. Control the process and you control the conclusion.
Now, from a straight scientific point of view, there may actually be some doubt about the danger of atrazine. From a public policy point of view, though, there is none. Syngenta’s actions have guilt all over them. The EU has already banned this poison. The US should too, not only to protect public health, but to protect the very processes of science. They can’t get away this behavior.