The Frog Scientist
The discoverer of atrazine’s toxicity defies biotech giants.
By Stuart Coleman// January 16, 2013 // Originally published on Honoluluweekly.com
DR. TYRONE HAYES // Growing up in a segregated town in South Carolina, the young Tyrone Hayes studied tadpoles in his yard and won a scholarship to Harvard. As a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, while doing research on the effects of atrazine, Hayes discovered that the popular herbicide causes chemical castration in frogs and possible hormonal disruption in humans. Hayes, who recently spoke at UH Manoa, is consulting in a lawsuit involving atrazine in the watersheds of Kauai. A short, stocky man who says he never backs down, he has engaged in intense arguments with his corporate critics. After one such encounter, Hayes emailed a Syngenta official: “So go’head, bring ‘your boys’ cuz I’m bringing the noise . . . You can’t stop the rage . . . when TDawg hits the stage.” In a mellower vein, he has published a children’s book called The Frog Scientist.
What was your experience working with Novartis (now owned by Syngenta) and atrazine?
Novartis contacted me in 1996, and originally my contract was to evaluate the science that was already published about atrazine. By 1998, I was contracted to do research to address whether atrazine actually interfered with hormone production. By the conclusion of those studies, they were unhappy with our findings that atrazine was an endocrine disruptor that both demasculinized and feminized amphibians. At that point, they tried to get me to manipulate the data [in a way] that I knew as a scientist was inappropriate. They then threatened me with financial and legal issues. Eventually, they went through stages where they were even threatening my family and my personal safety. So there were all kinds of personal and professional attacks.
How did you retaliate?
I had to start from scratch and repeat all of my studies and publish those completely independently from the manufacturer. So they couldn’t claim ownership of my ideas and how I did the experiments or the data that we produced.
Did they think that, like a lot of scientists, you would just give in to the pressure and succumb to offers of money? I assume they were offering you a lot of money.
Oh, I could be set right now! [T]hink about how much money Novartis and Syngenta have put in and lost, like this recent $105 million settlement to monitor and remove atrazine from the drinking water of their plaintiffs. There are several states involved. As I understand, there are districts in Hawaii that are getting money from that settlement.
Have they banned atrazine in the European Union?
Well, as their lawyers like to put it, the EU has denied regulatory approval for atrazine, which essentially means it’s been banned. In the EU, the precautionary principle requires that manufacturers prove the safety of their products if they’re found in the drinking water or [elsewhere] in a way that citizens will be exposed. Whereas in the U.S., we still have a sort of “innocent until proven guilty” approach.
That brings up the role of advocacy versus pure science. Can you explain that conflict?
Scientists have to be objective. But the idea that you’re using your knowledge and science to implement policy or inform politicians or policymakers doesn’t mean that you’re not objective . . . If you’re the expert, you should be the one involved. There’s a fallacy that if you’re somehow involved in advocacy or activism, you’ve somehow lost your objectivity. But I certainly haven’t lost objectivity in how I do my science or in how I present my science.
What was that Einstein quote in your talk at UH?
Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” And if you don’t act, then you’ve denied your responsibility. If you don’t acknowledge how your data and your science are being used and your responsibility in that, then you’re fooling yourself.
Are corporations saying scientists can’t share their findings, even when people’s health is on the line, and paying them to be quiet?
Oh, absolutely, and they have scientists on their payroll who sometimes acknowledge this. I’m not supposed to say this, but I just reviewed a paper by a pretty prominent scientist who was writing about the impact of endocrine disruptors on animals, and he completely ignored atrazine . . . And it just so happens that he is paid by the manufacturer of atrazine. Come on, there’s a conflict of interest!
How do you get your funding?
A lot of it is through private foundations. Then, of course, the industry says, You’re on their payroll! Well, if I was all about prostitution, I would’ve stuck with them because they have a lot more money than these tiny foundations.
How can we stop scientists being bought off by companies?
These chemical companies should be required to pay a tax or [into] some kind of fund so independent scientists can do independent studies where the companies don’t have any kind of impact on the outcome. That’s one of the things that needs to happen.