To protect profits threatened by a lawsuit over its controversial herbicide atrazine, Syngenta Crop Protection, a major manufacturer of pesticides, launched an aggressive multimillion-dollar campaign that included hiring a detective agency to investigate scientists on a federal advisory panel, looking into the personal life of a judge, and commissioning a psychological profile of a leading UC Berkeley scientist who has been critical of atrazine.
The Switzerland-based company also routinely paid "third-party allies" to appear to be independent supporters, and kept a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company. Recently unsealed court documents also reveal a corporate strategy to discredit critics and to strip plaintiffs from a class-action case against Syngenta. The company specifically targeted one of atrazine's fiercest and most outspoken critics, Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley, whose research suggests that atrazine feminizes male frogs.
Syngenta's campaign is spelled out in hundreds of pages of memos, invoices, and other documents from Illinois' Madison County Circuit Court that were initially sealed as part of a 2004 lawsuit filed by Holiday Shores Sanitary District. The recently released documents, along with a batch made public in late 2011, open a window on the company's strategy to defeat a lawsuit that it maintained could have effectively ended sales of atrazine in the United States.
The suit originally sought to force Syngenta to pay for the removal of atrazine from drinking water in Edwardsville, Illinois, northeast of St. Louis, but ultimately expanded to include more than 1,000 water systems covering 6 states. For Syngenta, which had $14.2 billion in total revenues last year, the stakes of the litigation were high. Atrazine has been popular with farmers since the 1950s because it is effective and economical in killing a broad spectrum of weeds. About 80 million pounds are used in the United States each year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, most of which are applied to corn in the Midwest. Three-quarters of all US corn is treated with atrazine; the herbicide is also used on golf courses, Christmas tree lots, and public lands.
Atrazine has long stirred controversy at the EPA, which approved its use as recently as 2003 but plans to launch another registration review this summer. Research has shown that atrazine is prone to running off fields and contaminating water supplies. It also drifts hundreds of miles by air from sites where it has been sprayed.
Relatively few studies have examined atrazine's health effects on human subjects. It has been shown to act as an endocrine-disrupting chemical — meaning that it can block or mimic hormones — and some human studies have suggested that it may harm fetuses and reduce men's sperm quality. An Indiana University study found that women who lived in areas with higher atrazine levels in water had children with higher rates of some genital birth defects (see sidebar, page 15).
The Holiday Shores case grew into a class action lawsuit, which was ultimately settled in 2012 after eight years of litigation. While not admitting culpability, Syngenta agreed to pay $105 million last year toward filtration costs for more than 1,000 community water systems in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio. Discovery documents from the lawsuit were unsealed by the Madison County Circuit Court in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by 100Reporters, a nonprofit investigative journalism group.
In a prepared statement, Syngenta defended its actions, describing the suit as an attempt to end atrazine sales in the United States. The demands of plaintiffs to receive reimbursement of their cleanup costs, the company wrote in an email, "would have effectively banned the use of this critical product that has been the backbone of safe weed control for more than 50 years."
The recently released documents show that the company conducted research into the vulnerabilities of a judge and professor Hayes' personal life. Sherry Duvall Ford, Syngenta's former head of communications, ranked strategies that Syngenta could use against Hayes in order of risk, according to her notes from Syngenta meetings in April 2005. One possibility: offering "to cut him in on unlimited research funds." Another: Investigate his wife.
In her deposition, Ford read from a memo emailed to her colleagues indicating that Syngenta had hired a detective agency to investigate members of an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel [SAP] examining atrazine. "I don't think it would be helpful if it were generally known that we research SAP members," Ford read. "The real good stuff I have kept for myself... . It [sic] protection for Janis on atrazine." (Janis E. McFarland is a Syngenta employee involved with the public relations campaign.)
Syngenta did not respond to questions about its use of a detective agency to investigate scientists on an EPA advisory panel, or why it looked into the personal life of a judge. In response to a question about why it commissioned a psychiatric profile on Hayes, the company issued a statement saying:
"In its defense of atrazine Syngenta focused on the science and the facts. And the scientific facts continue to make it clear that no one ever has been or ever could be exposed to enough atrazine in water to affect their health. Despite eight years of litigation, the plaintiffs were never able to show that atrazine ever caused any adverse health effects at levels to which people could be exposed in the real world. Most water systems involved in the litigation had never detected significant amounts of atrazine in their water."