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Chemical Study Becomes A Tale of Conspiracy And Paranoia


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, the strange story of Tyrone Hayes. The biologist has devoted much of his career to studying a common herbicide used on corn, called atrazine; specifically, its effects on amphibians. Hayes believes the chemical impedes the sexual development of frogs, and he's publicly argued against the use of atrazine and criticized the corporation that makes it, Syngenta.

For years, Hayes told friends and colleagues that because of his opposition, Syngenta was also waging a campaign against him - monitoring his correspondence, following him to speaking engagements, and trying to undermine him in public, even investigating his wife. Now, some of his colleagues believed him, others thought he was losing his grip.

The story unfolds in this week's New Yorker magazine. We're joined now by reporter Rachel Aviv. And Rachel, let's start briefly at the beginning. Give us a sketch of who Tyrone Hayes is, and how he first crossed paths with Syngenta.

RACHEL AVIV: So Tyrone Hayes is a scientist at Berkeley, a professor in the integrative biology department at Berkeley. And he studies the endocrinology of amphibians, and he was asked in the late '90 by Syngenta to examine atrazine and its ecological effects. And he did experiments that showed that atrazine caused tadpoles to develop both ovaries and testes. He called these frog hermaphrodites.

And his relations with Syngenta became strained once he reported these results. And eventually, he resigned from the job; and he accused Syngenta of stalling his research, of trying to critique trivial aspects of his work. And in his resignation letter, he said that he was worried that his colleagues would think he had been part of a plan to bury important data.

CORNISH: And the relationship between Hayes and Syngenta, it's not just strained, right? It gets much, much worse. Tyrone Hayes comes to think he's essentially under surveillance from the company. What kinds of things is he doing to avoid that? Why does he come to believe that?

AVIV: He starts to notice at conferences that he attends there is someone in the audience dressed a little bit better than everyone else, and this person is asking questions that cast doubt on the credibility of his work. And he also begins to think that other scientists are remembering events differently than he does. So he begins to carry an audio recorder. And eventually, he starts to tell his colleagues that he thinks Syngenta is orchestrating a campaign to destroy his reputation and is trying to figure out his vulnerabilities so they can exploit them.

CORNISH: Now, soon, it seems as though Tyrone Hayes falls in that category of people who say, you know, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, right? In 2012, two massive class action lawsuits around atrazine reveal hundreds of internal Syngenta documents that shed light on their side of Tyrone Hayes' story. What did they reveal?

AVIV: The documents showed that Syngenta was probably just as preoccupied by Hayes as he was by them. They had drafted a list of goals, and the first was to discredit Hayes. They had also created a long list of possible methods for discrediting him; and that included investigating his wife, investigating his funding, conducting third-party audit of his research, asking the journals where he published to retract his papers, and conducting what they called systematic rebuttals of all of his public appearances.

CORNISH: And if you do an Internet search of Hayes, you turn up this world of conflicting information - of studies and counter studies - even though lots of other people were doing similar research, correct?

AVIV: Mm-hmm. The first thing that pops up when I do a search is Tyrone Hayes: not credible. And there are notes taken by Syngenta's public relations staff that explicitly recommend purchasing "Tyrone Hayes" as a search word on the Internet so that when people search for his research, they can control what we see.

CORNISH: Now, stepping back for a moment, in your article, you write that this is reflective of a much broader kind of campaign, the sound science movement. Talk a little bit about what that means, and what that involves.

AVIV: One of the interesting things is, I think that industries have recognized that if they want to delay regulation on a particular product, it is more effective to critique the science rather than to get into a debate about the policy. And what has been named the sound science campaign is this effort to delay regulation by kind of picking apart the science that would be used to support the regulation.

CORNISH: Would you talk about - meaning their paid studies, right? - to consultants, to people who write op-eds. Is that a part of this?

AVIV: So Syngenta had a - what they called a list of supportive third-party stakeholders. And these were people - they were scientists, journalists, writers, directors of nonprofits - who could be called upon to defend atrazine. In some cases, the public relations staff of Syngenta would write editorials and then give them to these third-party allies, as they called them. The third-party allies would sign the editorials, and then they would be placed in regional newspapers. In that sense, they looked like journalism rather than public relations documents.

CORNISH: Critics of what you're saying would argue that, what's wrong with higher standards? You know, if you're going to regulate something, why not make sure that the science is sound, and that every method is the right one? I mean, what do you say to that?

AVIV: I think at some point, there has to be an acknowledgement that the science is never going to be ideal. We can only get so far, particularly when we're looking at the effects of chemicals on humans - because we can never test them in the perfect way, which would be to feed the chemical to humans and see what happens. So there's always going to be this zone of uncertainty. And I think that the way that Europe has dealt with this is to acknowledge that when there's - when we reach a certain degree of uncertainty, maybe we should slow down whereas in the U.S., the general approach has been to keep going until we have absolute proof that a chemical has harms.

CORNISH: In the end, where do things stand with Professor Hayes, with Syngenta?

AVIV: Syngenta is - now, the EPA is conducting another review of atrazine, this coming year. And Hayes is still giving all of his lectures - 50 lectures a year. But he is doing it, I think, with the knowledge that he is not this paranoid extremist. He - his fears were real.

CORNISH: Rachel Aviv, thanks so much for talking with us.

AVIV: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Rachel Aviv is a staff writer with The New Yorker. We were talking about her article this week on Professor Tyrone Hayes, agribusiness Syngenta, and their long fight over the chemical atrazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.