Debate rages over health effects of pesticide atrazine

FULL STORY: Pesticide Peril?

The end of the Second World War brought on the golden age of pesticides, as chemical companies promised to make weeds and pests a thing of the past. Farmers were producing more food than ever. Since then, these chemicals have become the lynchpin of our food supply.

But as pesticide use grew, so too did concerns about massive increases in pollution, wildlife deaths and even cancers.

By the 1990s, pesticides were under increasing attack. And the most-used pesticide at the time, atrazine, was getting a lot of attention.

Atrazine was ending up in lakes, streams and drinking water and many groups were worried about the health and environmental consequences.

READ MORE: Is there Atrazine in your drinking water?

While many scientists say that more research into atrazine’s effects on humans is needed, some studies show the chemical is associated with birth defects, breast cancer and poor semen quality in men.

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It was taken off the market in the European Union over a decade ago, though the International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that there is “inadequate evidence” to say that atrazine causes cancer in humans. However, they added that there was “sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of atrazine.”

“Atrazine is the number one contaminant found in drinking water in the U.S. and probably globally, probably in the world,” said University of California Berkeley amphibian expert Tyrone Hayes.

Hayes has spent almost 15 years warning about the possible dangers of this chemical. With a new PhD and a teaching post at this prestigious university, he was hired by an agribusiness giant, now called Syngenta, to conduct experiments on the safety of atrazine. It is a major moneymaker for the company.

His discoveries shocked the scientific community.

“Males would develop eggs in their testes or develop ovaries in their testes or essentially turn into hermaphrodites,” Hayes said, “and later we discovered that sometimes they completely turned into females.”

When he presented his findings to the company, he said: “It became very clear that they wanted me to manipulate data, that they didn’t want the science to move forward, that they didn’t want me to report the data.”

Hayes soon suspected he was being followed and that his public talks were being tracked. But what Hayes did after he made his discoveries surprised even his biggest critics.

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He began to campaign against Syngenta and atrazine. He gave hundreds of talks around the world warning of the potential dangers of atrazine.

But documents recently released as a result of a class action lawsuit revealed shocking details.

Company officials discussed ways to “discredit Hayes” and “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” They discussed investigating his wife and doing a psychological profile of him.

One suggestion from an April 2005 meeting was to cut Hayes “in on unlimited research funds.” Another observation made by company officials was that if Tyrone Hayes was “involved in scandal, enviros will drop him.”

Hayes says he doesn’t know what the company’s strategy was, but says it was the company’s actions that helped him achieve this level of acclaim.

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Tyrone Hayes, a scientist at the University of California Berkeley, who published a number of papers that show adverse effects on amphibians by the pesticide atrazine.

Syngenta told 16×9 in an email that Hayes’ findings “have been dismissed by respected scientific experts and regulatory agencies, including the EPA, PMRA and the APVMA, as unsuitable for regulatory risk assessment. In the case of Dr. Hayes, the EPA said his work is ‘methodologically flawed’ and repeatedly dismissed his findings.”

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While Hayes’ studies did not meet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Health Canada quality criteria, critics say that government regulators sometimes rely far too heavily on industry funded science when they approve these chemicals.

“Only one of probably hundreds of studies on the effects of atrazine on amphibians…met the EPA’s quality criteria…And that one study….was funded by Syngenta,” says Jason Rohr, a University of South Florida ecologist.

Rohr says that every single study ever conducted on atrazine and amphibians except one was essentially discounted by the two agencies because they did not meet their quality standards.

WACTH BELOW: Keith Solomon, a scientist at the University of Guelph, says industry funded research does not mean industry friendly results. He spoke with 16×9 about his research on the herbicide, atrazine.

But according to Keith Solomon, a University of Guelph scientist, “there is no strong evidence supporting a causal relationship between exposure to atrazine and adverse effects on amphibians and if you wanted to include fish and reptiles as well you could,” he told the EPA in 2012 testimony.

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Solomon criticizes Hayes’ work, pointing out that others were unable to repeat many of his experiments and Hayes did not provide data to the EPA. Syngenta also told 16×9 that “the results of [Hayes’] studies have never been replicated and he refuses to share his data with the EPA or other scientists.”

But Rohr and others say that Solomon has his own potential conflict of interest since his university laboratory received money from Syngenta to study atrazine. In a recent two-year period,the lab got almost $120,000 from the company.

Solomon says he has no conflict of interest. “Are the works of Beethoven or Mozart any less good because they were paid for? We deliver a good product and we go with the science we go with the data, we live and die by the data.” He also says that several national and international regulators agree with his conclusions.

As the debate about the safety of atrazine rages on, planting season is about to begin, and Canadian farmers are about to apply the pesticide to millions of acres of land across the country. And that pesticide will once again end up in drinking water.

Watch the entire April 5, 2014 edition of Global’s 16×9


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