Tyrone Hayes on the Misfortune of Frogs, Crooked Science and Why We Should Shun GMOs

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©. The New Yorker Presents

The life and work of biologist Dr. Tyrone B. Hayes, PhD, reads like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster: Scientist whistleblower takes on global agribusiness responsible for environmental havoc; a web of lies, corporate shenanigans, and mystery ensues. So it’s somehow fitting that Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme took on Hayes’ story for a segment in the Amazon Original TV series pilot, "The New Yorker Presents."

Co-produced by Jigsaw Productions and Conde Nast Entertainment, "The New Yorker Presents" is a nifty collection of vignettes in which pieces from the The New Yorker magazine – from fiction to poetry to non-fiction and beyond – have been recast as short films. In the segment on Hayes, Demme brings to life Rachel Aviv’s article about the biologist. Aviv's story becomes Demme's launching point into the investigation of the curious case of frogs changing genders and other deleterious effects of the herbicide atrazine on our ecosystem – told through the lens of Hayes’ life story and his enduring crusade to educate people about the dangers of this widely-used chemical.

We had the good fortune to talk to Hayes, here’s how it played out.

TreeHugger: [Sparing you the warm-up chitchat and cutting straight to the chase here.] So first of all, can you tell us about what led you to a career in amphibians and biology in general?

Tyrone Hayes: I was born and raised in South Carolina; I lived there until I was 18 years old. My interest in amphibians and the environment and in biology has been with me since I was a young child. I spent a lot of time in the swamps in South Carolina, both in and around my neighborhood and my grandmother’s house, but also in what’s now Congaree Swamp.

After South Carolina I moved to Harvard. I was a biology major there and I continued working with amphibians as an undergraduate and did my thesis on environmental regulation and effects on development and growth in amphibians. After graduating Harvard I came to Berkeley in 1989 for my PhD, where I again studied the role of environment and effects on amphibians and the role of hormones in development. Shortly after obtaining my PhD, I started a professorship at Berkeley where I continued to study amphibians and branched out into studying environmental chemical contaminants that interfere with hormones. At that stage I was hired by Syngenta to study atrazine and that's what the film is about.

TH: It seems kind of crazy that Syngenta sought you out; an expert in the field for a product that clearly had problems. Were the findings a surprise to them? Did they know what they had on their hands or was it a coincidence that they happened to come to you?

HAYES: No. They knew what the compounds did and I think that by hiring scientists ahead of any independent group or any government agency, they then had control over the data and how the data would be presented – or`whether the data got presented at all – and how much of the data got to the EPA. Individuals within the organization certainly knew about atrazine’s endocrine disrupting properties, from conversations that I had when we started the work. I think the goal was to be in control of the finances and the research and the data.

I don’t think it was a surprise at all. If you read some of their own handwritten documents that have been released, there are other chemicals in their arsenal, so to speak, that they know have environmental health and public health problems. They know that as the compounds are being released. So, for example, they replaced atrazine with a chemical in Europe [the European Union announced a ban of atrazine in 2003 because of ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination] called terbuthylazine. And in the same year that terbuthylazine became available in Europe you see in their handwritten notes that it's more active than atrazine, it causes the same problems as atrazine; it causes testicular cancer and a number of other similar problems that may be associated with atrazine.

Tyrone Hayes

© The New Yorker Presents

TH: It’s remarkable not only that they would seem to lack concern about the environmental and health effects, but also the hubris of fearlessly bringing these chemicals to the attention of enlightened researchers. Is this typical?

HAYES: I think what they do, in my experience, is they prey on young scientists. I was an up-and-coming scientist at the time, a brand new assistant professor and I didn't have tenure. What they can offer, especially in this funding climate, is a significant amount of funding to a young scientist and the promise of funding for life. They have control over that science and control over the career of a scientist, but the scientist will still have their own independent reputation. So for example, if I worked my way up through the ranks at Berkeley with their funding I would be free to really do any kind of science I want, and at the same time they'd have control over the science I was producing relative to their product.

So it's not much of a surprise with a chemical like atrazine that eventually a lot of people started to study it, but as long as they had control, they had some control on how it was regulated and what information became available.

TH: Atrazine was banned in the European Union, but not in the United States. What kind of efforts have been made here?

HAYES: Well, what the EPA said in The New Yorker article essentially indicates that the EPA understands the detrimental effect on wildlife and humans but there are economic considerations; that taking atrazine off the market would cause economic harm, at least according to EPA, so they balance the health costs and the environmental risk with the economic benefits of the chemical.

I know there’s a bill to ban atrazine in the U.S. Congress, there's a couple of individual states trying to ban atrazine. And there's a lot of interest among the non-governmental organizations. There are certainly a lot of reasons to get the chemical off the market and try to limit the environmental exposure to it. But I don't know of any place that's coming close. Syngenta puts a lot of money into lobbyists and propaganda to defeat efforts to get their compound off the market.

TH: What species are threatened by atrazine?

HAYES: There are a number of fish and amphibian species where atrazine contamination in water has caused problems; and not even just endangered species but also potential damage to, for example, the salmon industry. As you know, 70 percent of all amphibian species are in decline. There are a number of endangered species in California that are of concern with atrazine. Really habitat loss is the biggest threat to amphibians and probably to wildlife in general, but atrazine and other chemicals that can cause harm and are also very important factors in maintaining population health and are associated with the decline in amphibians.

Tyrone Hayes

© The New Yorker Presents

TH: And human health effects?

HAYES: There are a number of human health effects. Some of the findings are modeled on rat studies in the laboratory; atrazine causes abortion in rats, atrazine is associated with prostate disease in rats that are exposed in utero, it's associated with poor mammary development and mammary cancer in rats. In humans there are epidemiological studies that show that atrazine is associated with decreased sperm count, and atrazine is associated with increased breast cancer risk in at least one study done in Kentucky. Atrazine is associated with prostate cancer in men who work in their factory with it and most recently several studies have shown that it is associated with birth defects that are consistent with its mechanism of action. Atrazine is associated with choanal atresia where the nasal and oral cavities don't fuse so the baby has a hole in its face; atrazine is associated with a disease where the intestines are outside of the body when the baby is born; and atrazine is also associated with a number of genital malformations in male babies.

And what's interesting about these male malformations is that we know that male reproductive development is dependent on testosterone and is damaged by estrogen; and atrazine is a chemical that causes a decrease in testosterone and an increase in estrogen. So the lab models are completely consistent with the epidemiological problems that have been identified with atrazine.

TH: And it sounds like the same family of problems that are being found in amphibians?

HAYES: Correct. In fact I recently, with 21 other colleagues, published a paper showing that the effects of atrazine are consistent across amphibians, fish, reptiles, birds, laboratory mammals, laboratory rodents and with human epidemiological data. So people all over the world are studying atrazine and finding the same kinds of things that we're finding, which is ironic because the company keeps saying that no one is replicating my work, when in fact it's been replicated all over the world in all kinds of organisms, not just amphibians.

TH: So you’ve obviously distanced yourself from the company, but how was it when you were actually working for them?

HAYES: At first it was a little bit strange, I was a brand new assistant professor, I had never really been hired as a consultant and I didn't know how it worked or what it meant and I treated it just like I would any other academic pursuit. I assumed they really wanted the information. We did literature reviews, we wrote papers, some of the scientists there seemed respectable. But some of the other scientists seemed like they were really out to say whatever the company wanted them to say for money ... I heard people use the term "biostitutes." I watched scientists who knew better – who I know knew better – say “oh yeah this is safe, oh yeah this doesn’t mean anything” or perform experiments very poorly on purpose, or so it seemed to me.

It really became clear that some of these guys would just do poor experiments over and over again to get the results that the company wanted and then continue to be paid. So I started to become skeptical about whether or not I wanted my name associated, and worried about my reputation. Then when they actually started to bury data and manipulate my data and play these kinds of games, then I knew it was not a situation that I wanted to be involved in. I've said before, I could have stayed home and been a drug dealer or a pimp, I didn't need to get a PhD to do that kind of work!

I realized I've got a conscious and a sense of ethics that just won't allow me to operate that way. In a more practical way, I went to Harvard on scholarship. So somebody paid for me to go to school, and now I can't turn around and take money to do something like that.

Tyrone Hayes

© The New Yorker Presents

TH: It all seems like such a mess, as citizens and consumers, what can we do about chemicals in the environment, and how can we help the frogs?!

HAYES: There are a number of things. If you're not a scientist, do your best to get yourself informed. It's difficult out there. The Internet can provide a lot of access, but it can also provide a lot of misinformation. I think informing yourself and learning what’s science and what's not science and what are the real things to worry about is important. To be educated, to vote. Thinking about our future and not just thinking immediately about what’s happening now, but to think about the world that we will leave behind for our children. The EPA has public hearings on chemicals all the time. Getting involved and knowing how, even if you're not a scientist; knowing how to voice your opinion to the EPA. Writing letters to you congressperson, making important decisions at home.

For example, and I know that not everyone can do it, but doing your best to buy products that don't use chemicals and products that aren't using GMOs. And I want to point out: the problem with GMOs for me is that we're using more and more pesticides.

I remember when I was first in college and GMOs first started to become an issue. I was a young biologist and this was a brand new field that we were going into and what people talked about then were things like microbes that ate up oil spills or strawberries that were resistant to frost or corn that released its own insecticide only when it was bitten by the insect. And the idea was to move away from pesticide, but now it's just the opposite because of the chemical companies – six big chemical companies own 90 percent of the seed companies. So there's an inherent conflict of interest. They want to genetically design a plant that makes the farmers dependent on them, but they also want to make sure that the plant requires the chemical that the parent company produces. And you see that's the problem; the whole GMO industry got captured by the chemical industry, and that's why we're facing what we're facing now.

So we're designing plants that require more chemicals and if you encourage that industry by encouraging the use of GMOs then you're encouraging further use and dependence on chemicals which I think we have to try to move away from and look for alternative methods. Buying locally is important, not wasting food, buying more efficiently, all of these things I think are important.

"The New Yorker Presents" pilot debuts on January 15, you can watch it (and see Hayes in action) at Amazon.