Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Science for Sale

 SOYMB has on occasion revealed that science is often corrupted by commercial concerns. This interview on Democracy Now offers an example where profitability of a product over-rode the safety issue.

Syngenta is one of the largest agri-businesses in the world which is based in Basel, sells more than fourteen billion dollars’ worth of seeds and pesticides a year and funds research at some four hundred academic institutions around the world. There is now real concern that biotech companies were “buying up universities” and that industry funding compromises the objectivity of their research.

Atrazine is the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., where sales are estimated at about three hundred million dollars a year. Introduced in 1958, it is cheap to produce and controls a broad range of weeds. (Glyphosate, which is produced by Monsanto, is the most popular herbicide.) A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that without atrazine the national corn yield would fall by six per cent, creating an annual loss of nearly two billion dollars. But the herbicide degrades slowly in soil and often washes into streams and lakes, where it doesn’t readily dissolve. Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants of drinking water; an estimated thirty million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical. In 1994, the E.P.A., expressing concerns about atrazine’s health effects, announced that it would start a scientific review. Syngenta assembled a panel of scientists and professors, through a consulting firm called EcoRisk, to study the herbicide. Tyrone Hayes joined the group.

Tyrone Hayes, a University of California scientist who discovered that a popular herbicide may have harmful effects on the endocrine system. Tyrone Hayes was first hired in 1997 by a company that later became agribusiness giant Syngenta. They asked him to study their product, atrazine, a pesticide that is applied to more than half the corn crops in the United States and widely used on golf courses and Christmas tree farms. But after Hayes found results that the manufacturer did not expect, that atrazine causes sexual abnormalities in frogs and could cause the same problems for humans, Syngenta refused to allow him to publish his work.

 The New Yorker magazine used court documents from a class action lawsuit against Syngenta to show how it sought to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from banning the profitable chemical, which is already banned by the European Union. The European Union generally takes a precautionary approach to environmental risks, choosing restraint in the face of uncertainty. In the U.S., lingering scientific questions justify delays in regulatory decisions. Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment. Industries have a greater role in the American regulatory process—they may sue regulators if there are errors in the scientific record—and cost-benefit analyses are integral to decisions: a monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments, and shortened lives and weighed against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use. Lisa Heinzerling, the senior climate-policy counsel at the E.P.A. in 2009 and the associate administrator of the office of policy in 2009 and 2010, said that cost-benefit models appear “objective and neutral, a way to free ourselves from the chaos of politics.” But the complex algorithms “quietly condone a tremendous amount of risk.”

The company’s public relations team drafted a list of four goals. Reporter Rachel Aviv writes, quote, "The first was 'discredit Hayes.'  Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could 'prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.' He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to 'exploit Hayes' faults/problems.’ 'If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,' Ford wrote." In 2005, Ford made a long list of methods for discrediting him: “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” “investigate wife.” The P.R. team suggested that the company “purchase ‘Tyrone Hayes’ as a search word on the internet, so that any time someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material.” The proposal was later expanded to include the phrases “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.”

Steven Milloy, a freelance science columnist who runs a nonprofit organization to which Syngenta has given tens of thousands of dollars, wrote an article for Fox News titled “Freaky-Frog Fraud,” which picked apart Hayes’s paper in Nature, saying that there wasn’t a clear relationship between the concentration of atrazine and the effect on the frog. Milloy characterized Hayes as a “junk scientist” and dismissed his “lame” conclusions as “just another of Hayes’ tricks.” An organization called the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness petitioned the E.P.A. to ignore Hayes’s findings. “Hayes has killed and continues to kill thousands of frogs in unvalidated tests that have no proven value,” the petition said. The center argued that Hayes’s studies violated the Data Quality Act, passed in 2000, which requires that regulatory decisions rely on studies that meet high standards for “quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity.” The center is run by an industry lobbyist and consultant for Syngenta, Jim Tozzi.

Don Coursey, an economist at the Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago, five hundred dollars an hour to study how a ban on the herbicide would affect the economy. Coursey  announced that there was one “basic takeaway point: a ban on atrazine at the national level will have a devastating, devastating effect upon the U.S. corn economy.”

Fussy critiques of scientific experiments have become integral to what is known as the “sound science” campaign, an effort by interest groups and industries to slow the pace of regulation. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, wrote, in his book “Doubt Is Their Product” (2008), that corporations have developed sophisticated strategies for “manufacturing and magnifying uncertainty.” In the eighties and nineties, the tobacco industry fended off regulations by drawing attention to questions about the science of secondhand smoke. Many companies have adopted this tactic. “Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier and more effective than debating the policy,” Michaels wrote. “In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable.”

Syngenta’s public-relations team wrote editorials about the benefits of atrazine and about the flimsy science of its critics, and then sent them to “third-party allies,” who agreed to “byline” the articles, which appeared in the Washington Times, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Des Moines Register, and the St. Cloud Times. When a few articles in the “op-ed pipeline” sounded too aggressive, a Syngenta consultant warned that “some of the language of these pieces is suggestive of their source, which suggestion should be avoided at all costs.” Syngenta hired a communications consultancy, the White House Writers Group, which has represented more than sixty Fortune 500 companies.  The firm held “elite dinners with Washington influentials” and tried to “prompt members of Congress” to challenge the scientific rationale for an upcoming E.P.A. review of atrazine. In a memo describing its strategy, the White House Writers Group wrote that, “regarding science, it is important to keep in mind that the major players in Washington do not understand science.”

Syngenta use a company called Innovative Science Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in “product defense” and strategies that “give you the power to put your best data forward.”

The E.P.A. found that all seventeen atrazine studies, including Hayes’s, suffered from methodological flaws—contamination of controls, variability in measurement end points, poor animal husbandry—and asked Syngenta to fund a comprehensive experiment that would produce more definitive results. Darcy Kelley, a member of the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel and a biology professor at Columbia, said that, at the time, “I did not think the E.P.A. made the right decision.” The studies by Syngenta scientists had flaws that “really cast into doubt their ability to carry out their experiments. They couldn’t replicate effects that are as easy as falling off a log.” She thought that Hayes’s experiments were more respectable, but she wasn’t persuaded by Hayes’s explanation of the biological mechanism causing the deformities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What was the process within the company? As you raised your findings, what was their immediate reaction to what you had come across?

TYRONE HAYES: Well, initially they seemed sort of supportive. You know, we designed more studies. We designed more analysis. And they encouraged me to do more analysis. But as the further analysis just supported the original finding, they became less interested in moving forward very quickly, and eventually they moved to asking me to manipulate data or to misrepresent data, and ultimately they told me I could not publish or could not talk about the data outside of their closed panel...Well, eventually, what happened was the Environmental Protection Agency insisted that the manufacturer release me from the confidentiality contract. And we published our findings in pretty high-ranking journals, such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We published some work in Nature. We published work in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is a journal sponsored by the National Institutes of Health...Before we published the findings and before the EPA became involved, the company tried to purchase the data. They tried to give me a new contract so that they would then control the data and the experiments. They actually tried to get me to come and visit the company to get control of those data. And when I refused, I invited them to the university, I offered to share data, but they wanted to purchase the data. And then they actually—as mentioned in the New Yorker article, they actually hired scientists to try to refute the data or to pick apart the data, and eventually they hired scientists to do experiments that they claim refuted our data.

And then that escalated to the company actually—Tim Pastoor, in particular, and others from the company—coming to presentations that—or lectures that I was giving, to make handouts or to stand up and refute the data, and eventually even led to things like threats of violence. Tim Pastoor, for example, before I would give a talk, would literally threaten, whisper in my ear that he could have me lynched, or he would—quote, said he would "send some of his good ol’ boys to show me what it’s like to be gay," or at one point he threatened my wife and my daughter with sexual violence. He would whisper things like, "Your wife’s at home alone right now. How do you know I haven’t sent somebody there to take care of her? Isn’t your daughter there?" So, eventually, it really slipped into some, you know, pretty scary tactics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: ...When The New York Times ran a critical story about the herbicide as part of its toxic water series in 2009, she referred to its reporting as, quote, "all the news that’s fit to scare." This is a clip of Whelan from an interview on MSNBC.

ELIZABETH WHELAN: I very much disagree with the New York Times story, which is really raising concerns about a totally bogus risk. Atrazine has been used for more than 50 years. It’s very, very tightly regulated. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is not known for soft-pedaling about environmental chemicals, even they say it’s safe.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it turns out that Syngenta has been a long-term financial supporter of Whelan’s organization, the American Council on Science and Health, paying them at least $100,000. Your comments on her remarks?

TYRONE HAYES: Well, again, they’re paid remarks. And one of the most disheartening things in this whole process is that many of my critics—you know, it’s one to be academic, if you come and say, "Well, we interpreted the data this way, and we want to argue about this point," but these people really didn’t even have an opinion. These opinions were written by the manufacturer, and they were paid to put their names on them, to endorse the opinions of the manufacturer. So, you know, that’s one of the most disheartening things, that they were really just personalities for sale.

And many of the things that she’s saying there is just not true. There are—any independent study, from any scientist that’s not funded by Syngenta, has found similar problems with atrazine, not just my work on frogs. But I’ve just published a paper with 22 scientists from around the world, from 12 different countries, who have shown that atrazine causes sexual problems in mammals, that atrazine causes sexual problems in birds, amphibians, fish. So it’s not just my work in amphibians.

And also, with regards to the EPA, one of the scientific advisory panel members on the EPA that was supposed to review atrazine turns out is paid and works for Syngenta. So the whole process was tainted. And, in fact, the EPA ignored the scientific advisory panel’s opinion and actually decided to keep atrazine on the market and not to do any more studies, when that clearly wasn’t the recommendation of the scientific advisory panel.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, what’s happening with atrazine today? Where does it stand?

TYRONE HAYES: It’s still on the market. We’re still studying it. A number of studies are still coming out from around the world. One recent study has shown that male babies that are exposed in utero to atrazine, their genitals don’t develop properly. Their penis doesn’t develop properly, or they get microphallus. There are studies showing that sperm count goes down when you’re exposed to atrazine. And this is not just laboratory animals or animals in the wild; this is also humans. We use the same hormones that animals do for our reproduction. And it’s a big threat to environmental health and public health..."

Keith Solomon, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who has received funding from Syngenta and served on the EcoRisk panel, noted that academics who refuse industry money are not immune from biases; they’re under pressure to produce papers, in order to get tenure and promotions.

Michelle Boone, a professor of aquatic ecology at Miami University, who served on the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel, said, “We all follow the Tyrone Hayes drama, and some people will say, ‘He should just do the science.’ But the science doesn’t speak for itself. Industry has unlimited resources and bully power. Tyrone is the only one calling them out on what they’re doing.”

The E.P.A. determined that atrazine does not affect the sexual development of frogs. There were seventy-five published studies on the subject, but the E.P.A. excluded the majority of them from consideration, because they did not meet the requirements for quality that the agency had set in 2003. The conclusion was based largely on a set of studies funded by Syngenta and led by Werner Kloas, a professor of endocrinology at Humboldt University, in Berlin. One of the co-authors was Alan Hosmer, a Syngenta scientist whose job, according to a 2004 performance evaluation, included “atrazine defence” and “influencing EPA.”  Two of the independent experts who had served on the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel, along with fifteen other scientists, wrote a paper (not yet published) complaining that the agency had repeatedly ignored the panel’s recommendations and that it placed “human health and the environment at the mercy of industry.” “The EPA works with industry to set up the methodology for such studies with the outcome often that industry is the only institution that can afford to conduct the research,” they wrote. The Kloas study was the most comprehensive of its kind: its researchers had been scrutinized by an outside auditor, and their raw data turned over to the E.P.A. But the scientists wrote that one set of studies on a single species was “not a sufficient edifice on which to build a regulary assessment.” They added “the single best predictor of whether or not the herbicide atrazine had a significant effect in a study was the funding source.”

Jason Rohr, an ecologist at the University of South Florida, who served on an E.P.A. panel, criticized the “lucrative ‘science for hire’ industry, where scientists are employed to dispute data.” He wrote that a Syngenta-funded review of the atrazine literature had arguably misrepresented more than fifty studies and made a hundred and forty-four inaccurate or misleading statements, of which “96.5% appeared to be beneficial for Syngenta.” Rohr, who has conducted several experiments involving atrazine, said that, at conferences, “I regularly get peppered with questions from Syngenta cronies trying to discount my research. They try to poke holes in the research rather than appreciate the adverse effects of the chemicals.” He said, “I have colleagues whom I’ve tried to recruit, and they’ve told me that they’re not willing to delve into this sort of research, because they don’t want the headache of having to defend their credibility.”

Deborah Cory-Slechta, a former member of the E.P.A.’s science advisory board, said that she, too, felt that Syngenta was trying to undermine her work. A professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Cory-Slechta studies how the herbicide paraquat may contribute to diseases of the nervous system. “The folks from Syngenta used to follow me to my talks and tell me I wasn’t using ‘human-relevant doses,’ ” she said. “They would go up to my students and try to intimidate them. There was this sustained campaign to make it look like my science wasn’t legitimate.”

In 2012,  Syngenta agreed to pay a $105 million to reimburse more than a thousand water systems for the cost of filtering atrazine from drinking water, but the company denies all wrongdoing. 

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