We begin today with a disturbing scientific saga that demonstrates how far some will go to control what version of science gets told, and how that could factor into emerging trends in human sexuality. Twenty-five years ago, a researcher stumbled across what could be an important piece of the puzzle. But powerful forces have worked to silence and smear him, making it harder to get at the facts all these years later when they could matter the most.
The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
We caught up with Tyrone Hayes in his lab at University of California, Berkeley, where he’s a professor of integrative biology.
Tyrone Hayes: So I am a developmental endocrinologist. That means I’m interested in the role of hormones in regulating development.
For our purposes, you can think of him as the Frog Professor.
In 1998, Hayes was a young assistant professor when he got hired to conduct research for pharmaceutical and chemical giant Novartis.
Hayes: I was contracted by what was then Novartis to study atrazine, an herbicide, and to figure out if that herbicide somehow interfered with hormonal regulation of development.
Atrazine is routinely used on corn crops, sugarcane, pineapples, sorghum, macadamia nuts, and evergreen tree farms, and it’s one of the most common contaminants in America’s drinking water. In 1998, the government had announced a safety review that could have led to atrazine being restricted or banned.
Novartis was hoping Hayes’ research would help them prove it’s safe.
Hayes: At the time, it was the number-one-selling product for Novartis. It was their number-one-selling agrichemical.
Sharyl: And what did you learn early on?
Hayes: Early on, we showed that atrazine both, what I deemed, demasculinized animals, as well as feminized animals. So, genetic males, which should develop testes and a certain type of larynx — so voice box for attracting females — that aspect was inhibited in those genetic males, oftentimes developed ovaries and actually transformed into females.
Not only did atrazine turn boy frogs into girls, Hayes discovered, some atrazine-exposed frogs also developed both male testes and female ovaries. But it’s what the research implied about people that was most concerning.
Sharyl: Was there resistance to making the findings that you had— public at the time?
Hayes: Yes. The company and the consulting firm that I actually was under contract for was not interested in me publishing the work. And in fact, it was covered in my contract that I needed permission from the company to publish the work.
Sharyl: So what did you decide to do?
Hayes: At some point, I became uncomfortable with some of the things that the company asked me to do, so I became uncomfortable with some of the interpretation and some of the, quite honest, manipulations of the data that they were requesting. I decided to repeat the work without their funding so that I had freedom to publish and to discuss those data with scientists outside of my lab and outside of my university.
Hayes’ further research produced similar findings — not only in frogs — but also other species, and was published in prestigious journals. He reported that frogs developed “hermaphroditism,” having both female ovaries and male testes, when exposed to atrazine levels far below what the EPA says is safe for people to drink.
Hayes soon came to feel like Novartis Public Enemy #1.
Sharyl: What are some of the things that happen to you as you conducted this research and published it?
Hayes: Well they did a lot of things to me. The company tried very hard to get the work retracted or to publish counterwork or actually contact the university to try to get them to stop me from publishing.
Internal documents were revealed years after Hayes’ work for Novartis, after dozens of cities filed class action suits accusing the company of contaminating their drinking water and, quote, “concealing atrazine’s true dangerous nature.”
By then, Novartis had spun off its agrichemical business and atrazine to now-China-owned Syngenta.
In one document, Syngenta’s PR team drafted a list of ways to attack the uncooperative professor. “[D]iscredit Hayes,” reads one item. “[P]revent citing of [Tyrone Hayes] data by revealing him as noncredible,” “[a]sk journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” and “investigate [his] wife.” “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.” Buy the search phrases “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.”
Syngenta would later say that many of the documents “refer to ideas that were never implemented.”
Hayes says he was smeared, his career threatened, and his life made into a living hell.
Hayes: There was a pressure to reevaluate data, to inappropriately manipulate data to make it appear not as bad as it was. They hired other scientists to conduct experiments in ways that weren’t informative. Well, and even some of the studies that they conducted found the same results, but they wrote something different. They actually launched personal attacks on me, and they had plans — once revealed through documents obtained in a legal hearing — they had plans to harass and pursue my students and my family.
The giant PR campaign to defend atrazine ultimately helped convince the EPA to kick the can down the road for 20 years while the company continued to rake in billions, and more data was produced. Then, in 2020, the EPA finally made its decision.
Hayes: I published one paper with 22 co-authors from 12 different countries showing that atrazine was a reproductive toxin in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and rodents. There are other studies that have examined human cell lines. There are correlational studies that have examined atrazine associated with a number of different adverse outcomes in humans, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, low sperm count, and a variety of different birth defects. In 2020, the EPA released its final assessment and concluded that atrazine is likely to affect 54% of all species and 42% of all critical habitats. In that same year, the EPA re-registered atrazine for use.
Sharyl: Said it’s okay to use?
Hayes: Said it’s okay to use despite these preponderance of science showing that it has adverse effects on animals.
Sharyl: To what do you attribute that?
Hayes: Makes somebody a lot of money, and there’s a big lobby, and industry has a big influence over decisions like the ones that the EPA have to make.
From Syngenta’s view, they simply did what was within their power to do to set the record straight with a product they defend as safe, and to defend it from inaccurate and unfair attacks.
Today, CDC’s Division of Toxicology says atrazine can alter “the way that the reproductive system works,” may “increase the risk of pre-term delivery” may be linked to “some types of cancer,” “caused liver, kidney, and heart damage in animals,” and “could cause these effects in humans.” When pregnant women are exposed to atrazine in drinking water, it’s “associated with low fetal weight and heart, urinary, and limb defects.” High levels in pregnant animals caused “reduced survival of fetuses.”
There are still many unknowns. CDC says, “Little information is available regarding the effects of atrazine in children.” Which speaks to an elephant in the room.
Sharyl: If this is a hormone disruptor, if this can be playing any role in what we’re seeing happening in our youth today, when there’s a lot of boys who say they feel like girls and girls who say they feel like boys?
Hayes: That’s a tricky question. So let me be very clear. The sex and gender identity and sexual orientation and preference are, in part, controlled by hormonal influences early in development in the womb. And we know this, for example, your relative exposure to androgens and estrogens and other steroids may shape the brain that may later determine those things. There are also genetic and social and other environmental influences as well. That all being said, there’s very likely that chemicals like atrazine that can influence your hormonal balance, and we know it does so in humans, that that potentially could influence things like sex or gender identity and orientation.
The problem is, Hayes’ experience implies that studies with the answers may never be funded — or at least published.
Hayes: Atrazine is the poster child because, one, we know what it does. We know it is not, it’s not good, and it’s everywhere. So that’s why it’s important. On the other hand, there, you know, we have something like 80,000 human-made chemicals in the world. Most of them haven’t been studied in the level of detail that atrazine has. Most of the other compounds we use in agriculture, we know nothing about what they do. So yeah. We’re missing a lot of information. Of the chemicals that I’ve studied though, atrazine is the one that keeps coming back. It’s always there. We can always measure it in the environment, and it always has some effect under almost any kind of condition that you use it.
Sharyl (on-camera): A few loose ends. In 2012, Syngenta settled state class action drinking water lawsuits, agreeing to pay $105 million, but denying any wrongdoing. The company continues to insist that atrazine does not cause any harm to people in normal, real-world exposures. Today, China-owned Syngenta reports sales of more than $16 billion dollars a year in pesticides, seeds, and other products. We couldn’t find anybody publicly studying the impact of atrazine or any other chemical or pharmaceutical product on transgender trends.
Watch cover story here.
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