August 12, 2010

Frogs, atrazine and the Nutty Professor

llustration: Nutty Professor
by Linas Garsys for
The Washington Times
If you've followed any of the reports on atrazine, especially those dealing with frogs, you've likely come across the name Tyrone Hayes, a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Of course I'm using the words "research scientist" loosely because it seems his personal agenda may have squewed his work. It's also put a big hole in his credibility. (See below for info on atrazine and frogs.)

Much of this is captured in a report by The Washington Times this week where, appropriately perhaps, the paper included an illustration of the Nutty Professor with the article. The nuttiness comes from a long series of emails sent to Syngenta - one of the makers of atrazine. After several years, Syngenta appealed to the university to get the sometimes threatening emails to stop.

Here's what The Washington Times said about the emails:
After many years of trying to resolve the issue privately, the agri-chemical company Syngenta - the maker of atrazine - recently released the text of some of the e-mails it has been receiving from Mr. Hayes, going back to 2002. The professor's studies and findings are barely mentioned in his e-mails. Instead, the e-mails are obscene, threatening and sexually explicit. They show a megalomaniacal streak in which Mr. Hayes consistently speaks not of his research, but of his personal power and prowess.

Perhaps Mr. Hayes feels that in his efforts to promote a ban on atrazine, any kind of activity is justified. However, harassment, threats and obscenities are never appropriate. It is especially troubling from a member of the active scientific community, upon whose judgment others - including the public - rely in reading and acting on research results.
Well, that's enough on that - just click through to read the full analysis.

But what about atrazine and frogs?
In 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency said there was “no available proof” that atrazine turns male frogs into female frogs. The EPA also said that no additional studies were needed into this because the science was clear. In fact, this was backed by work in Australia and a review by the state of Minnesota.

The biology behind the issue
If you expose very young male frogs to estrogen there's a chance they'll become female or have both male/female traits – and Hayes theorized that atrazine would do the same thing and did a "study" in 2002 in an attempt to "prove" his hypothesis.

In 2003, EPA responded to this theory – there were no guidelines at the time since Hayes didn't follow standard lab procedures nor share all his methods. Inconsistent procedures and a lack of protocols meant work needed to be done just to do a study.

EPA charged Syngenta to get the data – and stood over the shoulder in the lab watching. Following standardized Good Laboratory Practices, which includes being transparent, the company completed a wide range of doses with eight replicates involving more than 3,000 frogs. Two studies were completed (EPA had asked only for one) and then everything was handed over so EPA could do its own assessment.

The result? Atrazine did not turn male frogs into female frogs. Nor did it impact growth, development or survival.

Importantly, since the lab procedures and data were open, others could verify this work – and several did. (Links to all the research are here.)

This is not true for the "research" by Hayes that started EPA down the path to examine the potential impact of atrazine on frogs in the first place. Hayes work could not be duplicated (researchers tried and had different results), his lab did not follow Good Laboratory Practices and he wouldn't share all the data and procedures with EPA. (RED FLAGS!)

Having examined all the data available – and lack of reliable research from Hayes – EPA dismissed his claims. More than once.

Yet allegations continue – by Hayes and organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council who hold him up as a credible scientist. (Even though NRDC apparently doesn't understand that Risk = Exposure x Toxicity. Or maybe that explains why they put an agenda ahead of real science.)

For more on atrazine, be sure to read Atrazine: What is the safety limit on this blog, or a blog post by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan at the American Council on Science and Health.

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