It sounds like fodder for a PR flap that might benefit the leading producer of the controversial herbicide atrazine: reams of explicit, taunting e-mails sent to company employees by a professor whose research on the health risks of their product had won nationwide notice.
"how yo republican buddies ended up drinking gin with me last night? where were you? ... as long as you followin me round, i know i'm da s**t [sic]," University of California, Berkeley, professor Tyrone Hayes, wrote to four employees of Syngenta AG on Feb. 24.
Hayes' e-mails to Syngenta officials date to 2002, according to a 102-page file the atrazine manufacturer posted to its website to buttress an ethics complaint filed against the tenured biology professor last month. His communiques run the gamut from spoken-word poetry to music lyrics -- Phil Collins, Tupac Shakur and other artists are quoted -- to profane intimations of violence against Syngenta officials.
The company's latest complaint furthers its long-simmering feud with Hayes, who has become an outspoken critic of atrazine after years-long research that found the weed killer disrupting the sexual development of frogs, in some cases turning male subjects into females. But the intensely personal clash over Hayes' e-mails, described by a Sygenta lawyer as "aggressive, unprofessional, and insulting," is failing to cut into his support from environmental and farmworker advocates who have helped amplify his warnings about the herbicide's human health risks.
"Who cares what offended them?" Center for Biological Diversity conservation director Peter Galvin, whose group hosted Hayes for a pesticides event last month, said of Syngenta. "They're grown-ups, they're big boys and girls. They can take a little heat. The fact is, these people are pushing a deadly product."
Galvin likened Syngenta to Joe McCarthy, the senator whose 1950s crusade against perceived communism was later revealed as a witch hunt, and the tobacco industry, which often took a direct approach in attempting to undermine the conclusions of scientists who researched the health hazards of smoking. The latter comparison was echoed by representatives of several other green groups that described the company's ethics charges as an attempt to distract from Hayes' conclusions on the endocrine effects of atrazine exposure as U.S. EPA continues its review of the popular product's impact on human health (Greenwire, Oct. 7, 2009).
"This is straight out of big tobacco's PR handbook," said Pesticide Action Network North America spokeswoman Heather Pilatic. "The news Syngenta is trying to distract people's attention from, as we're heading into the fall and the tail end of EPA's review, is that atrazine is a serious contaminant."
Syngenta, however, finds "no connection" between its alarm over Hayes' provocative e-mails and the content of his atrazine studies, company spokesman Paul Minehart said.
"Our goal in this is completely separate from anything regarding the research," Minehart added. "He has as much right as anyone else to voice his opinions. It's the way he's doing it that has [proven offensive]."
Hayes took a dim view of the company's assertion that criticism of his e-mails, which he described as largely in response to incitement from Syngenta employees, was not intended to reflect on his atrazine work.
"I don't think you can separate the two," Hayes said in an interview, describing the release of his correspondence as the final step in "a series of tactics they have applied over the last 10 years ... to discredit or assassinate my character."
Hayes has apologized for previous rounds of e-mails to Syngenta employees, but he also attempted to put his impassioned responses in context by forwarding an e-mail he said was accidentally sent to him by a Syngenta lawyer after company scientist Tim Pastoor jostled verbally with Hayes before both men testified on atrazine before a committee of the Illinois Legislature.
Minehart said the e-mail, in which Syngenta's Alan Nadel wrote, "You hit a nerve," was a reaction to the content of that day's testimony, not any private confrontation between Hayes and Pastoor.
The Illinois legislators' inquiry comes as more than a dozen Midwestern water utilities pursue a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta, accusing the company of polluting their drinking supplies with unsafe levels of atrazine and seeking compensation to offset the costs of filtering out the herbicide.
Meanwhile, the EPA review has sparked a pushback campaign by agribusiness interests that tout the chemical's cost-effectiveness (E&ENews PM, July 7).
The Syngenta-Hayes battle is driven in no small part by Hayes' unique willingness to wear two hats, those of outspoken atrazine critic and objective scientist.
"I'm not offended by the term 'activist,'" Hayes said. "I am biased because I've seen the data. ... I'm biased in that I don't want [atrazine] in my water. Why shouldn't I make that research available to others?"
That confident approach has won Hayes fans since his e-mails were publicized -- the widely read website Gawker dubbed him the "World's Greatest Angry Scientist" -- as well as new conservative opponents. But "it can be a bit challenging balancing" the twin roles of activist and scientist, observed Jason Rohr, an assistant integrative biology professor at the University of South Florida whose atrazine research also has fueled the debate over regulating the chemical.
Rohr offered a window into the political pressures facing academic scientists who often field corporate requests for the raw data underlying their research. When Syngenta asked him for the data underlying a particular atrazine study, Rohr said, he ultimately declined.
"Syngenta has every right to fight back if they think the research is not up to sufficient standards or if there are some ethical concerns regarding the way a study was conducted," Rohr said. Specifying that only Syngenta and Hayes knew all the relevant details of the conflict, he added: "However, certainly there are cases where companies and industry can use their clout and money to intimidate researchers."
The latest ethics complaint is unlikely to be the last volley in the ongoing tangle over atrazine. Hayes said he is about to submit for review the second of two new studies that he describes as documenting the herbicide's disruptive effect on sexual functioning is not limited to frogs.
In addition, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences released a new study this week that links low levels of atrazine exposure to delayed puberty and prostate inflammation in rats, findings that will be presented to EPA officials next month during a meeting of the agency's scientific advisory panel that is reviewing atrazine.
As the EPA review continues, environmental advocates are standing by Hayes' atrazine findings while working to keep federal decisionmakers focused on policy, not verses by the rapper Ludacris.
"We hope that EPA is not distracted by this show Syngenta is putting on," said John Kempner, project director at the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides. "The science stands on its own."
Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoed that sentiment in a blog post on the group's website. While she was "surprised to learn" about the e-mails, Sass said, Syngenta's move to release them amounts to a "red herring" given that Hayes is one of many scientists who have concluded that atrazine poses a public health risk.
Click here to read Hayes' e-mails released by Syngenta.