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Lex Horan

Spinning the science on atrazine

The last of the late spring snowstorms are winding down here in the Midwest, and it won’t be long before corn goes into the ground. With corn-planting, of course, comes atrazine applications. And though atrazine doesn’t get much use in the colder months, this winter hasn’t been a quiet one for the notorious herbicide and its manufacturer, the Syngenta Corporation.

In the last few months, investigative reporters in the U.S. and Canada have highlighted Syngenta’s desperate scrambling to discredit atrazine’s critics. Recent pieces in major outlets like the New Yorker and Canada’s 16 x 9, building on important findings first published in 100Reporters, have pulled back the curtain on Syngenta’s PR machine for a broader audience. The message? In the pesticide industry, spin is half the business.

Much of the recent media coverage zeroes in on Dr. Tyrone Hayes, the Berkeley biologist who was on Syngenta’s payroll until his findings raised red flags about atrazine.

Syngenta’s PR machine

When Hayes went public with his research, Syngenta dropped Hayes and publicly refuted his findings. As Hayes continued to publicly question atrazine, Syngenta launched a behind-the-scenes offensive, pulling out all the stops to discredit Hayes professionally and shake him up personally.

Hayes’ story has become emblematic of a much broader trend: industry actively undermining independent science.

As a former lobbyist for the pesticide industry explains in this month’s 16 x 9 report, the pesticide industry has a focused strategy when it comes to spinning science. By going after individual scientists’ credibility, industry can preempt real debate about whether dangerous chemicals should be on the market. Researchers learn quickly that if they question the pesticide industry, they may be putting their careers at risk. And so in the end, the majority of scientists conduct research that’s underwritten by Syngenta and the rest of the Big 6.

But there’s a hopeful flip side. Hayes’s story affirms what we, at PAN, deeply believe: that independent science, amplified by powerful and committed spokespeople, can chip away at industry spin.  

As I traveled through Iowa and Minnesota last month training local partners to use PAN’s Drift Catcher tool, I found that almost everyone knows Tyrone Hayes’s name. For small farmers and rural residents dealing with pesticides in their air and water, Hayes’s outspoken truth-telling is both inspiring and affirming. It looks a lot like the work they’re doing to speak up and defend their communities from hazardous pesticides.

Rural communities foot the bill

It’s no wonder Syngenta works so hard to keep atrazine on the market. With 76 million pounds applied annually, it’s the second most widely-used pesticide in the United States. Syngenta would like to keep it that way.

Atrazine starts on corn fields, but the first heavy rain after planting — the spring flush — washes agricultural chemicals from the fields into both ground and surface water. For rural residents in the corn belt, these are major sources of drinking water.

Taxpayers foot the bill for filtering Syngenta’s atrazine out of local drinking water.

Like so many pesticides, atrazine makes its way into water even when it’s applied according to the label. Then it becomes the responsibility of small public water utilities — and the taxpayers who fund them — to filter it out of our drinking water. This amounts to subsidizing Syngenta, straight out of the pockets of rural communities.

A recent class action lawsuit held Syngenta responsible for some of the costs borne by small water systems for managing atrazine contamination, but it was only a drop in the bucket compared to the true price of the pesticide.

For rural residents whose drinking water is spiked with atrazine, this is deeply personal. Serious health impacts like endocrine disruption, reproductive harms and cancer are all associated with atrazine exposure. And EPA is the agency responsible for protecting them from it.

It’s time, EPA

Atrazine has become a poster child for our broken regulatory and agricultural systems. It’s not economically necessary, and its health harms are known. Industry’s dirty tactics are out in the open. And though European regulators banned the chemical a decade ago, EPA is still stalling.

EPA has a track record of bending to Syngenta’s lobbying in prior registration reviews of atrazine. But with another review open right now, they have a chance to make a decision that puts rural health above Syngenta’s profits. EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Panel has chided the Agency for not taking atrazine’s cancer risk more seriously.

Syngenta defends atrazine to preserve their bottom line. But what’s EPA’s excuse?

Many people in rural communities in Minnesota and Iowa have told me they’re concerned about pesticides in their air and water. But most are quick to say that they don’t want to condemn their neighbors for their farming practices — especially when their neighbors are using pesticides legally. As long as regulatory and legislative decision-makers choose to keep atrazine on the market rather than supporting alternatives, millions of pounds of this herbicide will land on cornfields every spring. And while this is good for Syngenta, it’s bad for the rest of us.

We’ll keep you up to date on EPA’s current review of atrazine, and ask you to join us when we submit our next comments to EPA. In the meantime, as planting season begins, we encourage you to take this opportunity to start conversations in your community about protecting kids, and the rest of us, from harmful chemicals like atrazine.

Image: Courtesy of Syngenta

Picture of Lex Horan

Lex Horan

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