Dr. Tyrone Hayes’ story reads like a movie script. Originally from a segregated town in South Carolina, the young African-American studied tadpoles in his yard and later won a scholarship to Harvard. He then became the second-youngest tenured professor in the Integrative Biology Dept. at UC-Berkeley. While doing research on the effects of atrazine for the chemical company Novartis (now owned by Syngenta), Hayes discovered that the popular pesticide causes chemical castration and feminization in frogs and hormonal disruption in humans that can lead to infertility and breast cancer.
After a meteoric rise to the top of his field, the professor had to decide whether to play it safe and downplay his findings or go against one of the most powerful corporations in the world and risk damaging his career. Choosing the latter, he has since become a leading expert on the effects of atrazine as an endocrine disruptor and has been featured in many publications, ten documentaries and a children’s book called The Frog Scientist.
During a recent visit to Honolulu, Hayes gave a talk at UH-Manoa, and he will be coming back to Hawaii to consult in lawsuits involving atrazine in the watersheds. A short, stocky man who never backs down, he has engaged in intense arguments with his corporate critics and often writes rap lyrics to state his case. After a hostile encounter with a Syngenta official in 2010, Dr. Tyrone Hayes emailed the man the following message: “So go’head, bring ‘your boys’ / cuz I’m bringing the noise/ I told ya, you can’t stop the rage… / when TDawg hits the stage.”
Stuart Coleman: What was your experience working with Novartis and atrazine?
Tyrone Hayes: Novartis contacted me in 1996, and originally my contract was to evaluate the science that was already published about [their pesticide product called] atrazine. By 1998, I was contracted to do research to address whether atrazine actually interfered with hormone production. By the conclusion of those studies, they were unhappy with our findings that atrazine was an endocrine disruptor that both demasculinized and feminized amphibians. At that point, they tried to get me to manipulate the data that I knew as a scientist was inappropriate. They then threatened me with financial and legal issues. Eventually, they went through stages where they were even threatening my family and my personal safety. So there were all kinds of personal and professional attacks.
SC: How did you retaliate? Did you have to start from scratch?
TH: I did. I had to start from scratch and repeat all of my studies and publish those completely independently from the manufacturer. So they couldn’t claim ownership of my ideas and how I did the experiments or the data that we produced.
SC: Did they think that like a lot of scientists you would just give in to the pressure and succumb to the offers of money? I assume they were offering you a lot of money.
TH: Oh, I could be set right now! If you think about how much money they’ve put in and lost, like this recent $105 million settlement, that’s nothing to them. Novartis and Syngenta just settled in a court case for $105 million to monitor and remove atrazine from the drinking water of their plaintiffs. There are several states involved. As I understand, there are districts in Hawaii that are getting money from that settlement.
SC: Have they banned atrazine in the European Union?
TH: Well, as their lawyers like to put it, the European Union has denied regulatory approval for atrazine, which essentially means it’s been banned. In the European Union, the precautionary principle [do no harm] requires that the manufacturers prove the safety of their products if it’s found in the drinking water or in a way that citizens will be exposed. Whereas in the US, we still have a sort of ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ approach.
SC: That brings up the role of advocacy versus pure science. Can you explain that conflict?
TH: Scientists have to be objective. But the idea that you’re using your knowledge and science to implement policy or inform politicians or policy-makers doesn’t mean that you’re not objective…If you’re the expert, you should be the one involved. There’s a fallacy that if you’re somehow involved in advocacy or activism, you’ve somehow lost your objectivity. But I certainly haven’t lost objectivity in how I do my science or in how I present my science.
SC: What’s that Einstein quote you mentioned in your talk at the University of Hawaii?
TH: Einstein said, ‘Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.’ And if you don’t act, then you’ve denied your responsibility. If you don’t acknowledge how your data and your science are being used and your responsibility in that, then you’re fooling yourself.
SC: Especially when there are lives in the balance and people’s health is on the line. It’s almost negligence for scientists not to share their findings, but are corporations saying they can’t do this and paying them to be quiet?
TH: Oh, absolutely, and they have scientists on their payroll who sometimes acknowledge this. I’m not supposed to say this, but I just reviewed a paper by a pretty prominent scientist who was writing about the impact of endocrine disruptors on animals, and he completely ignored atrazine…And it just so happens that he is paid by the manufacturer of atrazine. Come on, there’s a conflict of interest!
SC: How can we change the corrupt practice of scientists being bought off by companies?
TH: These chemical companies should be required to pay a tax or some kind of fund to so independent scientists can do independent studies where the companies don’t have any kind of impact on the outcome. That’s one of the things that needs to happen.
SC: How do you get your funding?
TH: A lot of it is through private foundations. Then, of course, the industry says, You’re on their payroll! Well, if I was all about prostitution, I would’ve stuck with them because they have a lot more money than these tiny foundations.