Controversy Over Herbicide Obscures Public Risk

[NOTE: Text is essentially as it was published in the Eugene Register Guard on November 7, 2014, except for a few minor edits by the newspaper. The RG has since removed the link from their archives. TAT 6/01/15]

When Dr. Tyrone Hayes visited the University of Oregon in October, the Register-Guard (October 23, 2014) waded into a frothy mess created when herbicides, industrial farming, and the price of corn ethanol ran headlong into biological issues such as cancer and the health of babies. “Controversy Surrounds UO Speaker” ran the headline, but the article steered clear of any particulars around Hayes’s atrazine research, focusing instead on his conflict with Syngenta, manufacturer of this second most commonly used herbicide in the United States.

Biology can be complicated, but the basics aren’t controversial. We observe something happening repeatedly. We ask why, figure out an experiment, and collect some data to help us distinguish between alternative explanations. Hopefully a meaningful answer emerges that leads to further questions. Fair and balanced doesn’t matter. Controversy is generated and resolved by data, which are also colored by context—race, gender, social milieu, funding source, and the boundaries of our five senses. Despite these limitations, we’ve domesticated fire, invented bows and projectile points, deciphered DNA, and sequenced our own genome.

Enter Dr. Hayes and atrazine. With funding from Novartis (parent company of Syngenta) he found that male African clawed frogs exposed to this herbicide did not fully develop a voice box, a male characteristic. Hayes then found that atrazine-treated male frogs developed both male and female reproductive organs, which is not normal. Hayes reasoned that hormones were behind this weirdness and found that male atrazine-treated frogs have very little testosterone. Atrazine increases an enzyme called aromatase that changes male hormones (androgens) into female hormones (estrogens). This process is good for girl frogs, but not for boy frogs. Hayes and others have uncovered the molecular interactions responsible of this uptick in female hormones. The feminizing effects of atrazine happen at concentrations below drinking water standards and are similar in fish, birds, reptiles, and rats. Atrazine affects all animals because in all of them, including Ducks, Beavers, Syngenta executives, and herbicide activists, aromatase converts androgens to estrogens. These results have appeared in mainstream peer-reviewed biology journals. Insomniacs should use the articles for bedtime reading. They are boring and hardly controversial, using straightforward methods with obvious and measurable outcomes analyzed with routine statistical methods to tell a story about the effects of atrazine on vertebrates.

So where is the controversy? Things got messy when Hayes, a flamboyant smack-talking Harvard graduate sporting dangly earrings and colorful ties and scarves, pushed his research pedal to the metal and forced a head-on collision with Syngenta. The impact rippled out into agriculture, economics, ecosystem health, and human well-being. The company fought back with data from its own funded research. Hayes took the skirmish out of the ivory tower and into the streets. He did documentaries and wrote inflammatory emails to Syngenta employees. Syngenta tried to sue him over the emails. The New Yorker portrayed Hayes as a reluctant and beleaguered hero. Forbes fired back, calling him a paranoid conspiracy nut. A court order forced Syngenta to disgorge company records documenting the organized smear campaign that Hayes had long suspected, perhaps proving that even paranoid people have real enemies. Now we’re talkin’ controversy.

We can’t fault the Register-Guard for leaving out the biology. Science doesn’t sell papers, which must attract advertising to survive. In this respect, the absence of any biology in the Hayes article is simply a reflection of our own attitudes. We want our science delivered in easily digestible bullet points. We will, however, be drawn to the drama of a headline with the word “Controversy.”

The digital age has produced a fantastic sharing of scientific information. But much of this coverage is necessarily summary journalism and opinion, sometimes creating a layer of chaos around verifiable facts. Governments, politicos, and corporations take advantage of this pandemonium. The “controversy” around atrazine illustrates a tactic, deployed for decades by the tobacco industry, of publicly trying to discredit basic scientific research by claiming, among other things, that the results have not been replicated or the relevance to human health was not demonstrated. Both information and misinformation are used to sway the “court of public opinion,” sometimes stalling needed regulatory action. Regulators and politicians usually are not scientists.

Controversy is entertaining. Atrazine is not. The stuff is everywhere, even in our rain, and has known biological effects on sex hormones that can derail normal human development and potentially contribute to important health problems such as breast and prostate cancer. The cautionary principle calls out to us—prove no harm before proceeding, not the reverse. More generally, we should take a stab at getting the facts behind a controversy and enjoy the rest for what it is—drama.

Dr. Tom A. Titus is a researcher and instructor in the University of Oregon Institute of Neuroscience and president of the Eugene Natural History Society.