Category Archives: Science

Poisoning our Kids by Dumping Dangerous Chemicals In the Environment

Poison2In February 2014, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai published a report in the journal Lancet Neurology linking children’s exposure to chemicals to a range of disorders including dyslexia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, and a host of others. The study focused primarily on the evidence showing that methylmercury, lead, arsenic, toluene, polychlorinated biphenyls, manganese, fluoride, pesticides, flame retardants, and solvents impact brain development in growing children and are linked to lowered IQs, cognitive delays, aggression, hyperactivity and other developmental disorders.

The American Chemistry Council fired back, stating: “The authors focus largely on chemicals and heavy metals that are well understood to be inappropriate for children’s exposure, are highly regulated and/or are restricted or being phased out.” While DDT, one of the solvents studied, has indeed been phased out, a slew of others are still being dumped into the environment.

While some of these chemicals and heavy metals are regulated, disastrous spills and irresponsible dam breaches have occurred at some of the world’s largest mining companies. Just recently, on August 5, 2014, Imperial Metals, a mining company with several mining sites in Canada, dumped over 10 billion liters of wastewater and 5 billion liters of solid tailings waste into the pristine waters of British Columbia. The company had been warned several times about the possibility of their dam breaking over the last couple of years, but continued to dispose of chemicals and hard metals in a tailings pond. While the company’s CEO, Brian Kynoch, claimed that the escaping water was close to drinkable, reports from the mine would lead to a different conclusion. According to a 2013 Mount Polley Mine report from Imperial Metals, the following quantities of neurotoxic chemicals were disposed of on-site at the mine: 20,988 tons of manganese, 406,122 kg of arsenic, 177,041 kg of lead, and 3,114 kg of mercury. Following the dam breach there has been a water ban in the region, prohibiting nearby Indian reservations from drinking the water and fishing for salmon.

Many scientific studies have shown the significant environmental damage that these types of spills do regardless of future clean-up efforts. One such study was presented in 2011 by a team of scientists researching how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico affected sea life. Led by Dr. Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences, the team discovered that despite immediate efforts to clean the spill, sea animals in the area had already incorporated heavy metals (like those that Imperial Metals just dumped) and other contaminants into their tissue and shells. Normally fit for consumption by other marine life as well as humans, the mussels and oysters studied had become toxic food sources.

Imperial Metals is largely owned by N. Murray Edwards, the Canadian business guru ranked Number 820 on the Forbes list of the world’s top billionaires. He also chairs the board of directors of Canadian Natural Resources, Ltd., a company which, like Koch Exploration Canada L.P., uses the controversial Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) technique to bring natural gas deposits to the surface of the ground. The SAGD process poisons the ground water and leaks dangerous chemicals into the environment.

The Indians whose drinking water, food, and livelihoods have been threatened by the Imperial Metals spill are outraged. Chief Judy Wilson of the Canadian Neskonlith Indian Band, which owns much of the property on which Imperial Metals operates its mines, issued an eviction notice to the company following the massive polluting event. Chief Wilson stated: “Imperial Metals failed to properly protect Secwepemc land and waters…the caretakers of our land and waters…have an obligation to protect our land for our future generations.”

When Big Business Attacks Science and Discredits Scientists

Tyrone-thumb-388x389-32741A recent article in the New Yorker  chronicles the systematic attack on science by a large agribusiness on a University of California Berkeley professor who discovered some undesirable side effects caused by one of the company’s chemicals.

Professor Tyrone Hayes was hired by Syngenta (which at the time was Novartis) in 1997 to conduct experiments on an herbicide produced by the company called atrazine. Atrazine is the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., and has annual sales of about $300 million. It is also one of the most common contaminants of drinking water, and an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical.

At the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, Syngenta had assembled a panel of scientists and professors, including Hayes, to study atrazine. Hayes, a well-respected professor of integrative biology who was known for his work on the endocrinology of amphibians, began conducting research on the effects of atrazine on frogs. During the course of his experiments, Professor Hayes discovered that atrazine caused sexual deformities in the frogs; some frogs couldn’t be clearly identified as male or female as they had both testes and ovaries, and others had multiple, deformed testes.

Hayes alerted Syngenta about his findings, but instead of being commended for his research, he found his work and reputation under attack. According to Syngenta documents uncovered in two Korein Tillery class action suits on behalf of 23 Midwestern water providers claiming contamination of their water supplies, the agri-giant conducted a smear campaign aimed at destroying Hayes’s reputation and discrediting his scientific research. (Syngenta settled the class actions in 2012, and agreed to pay $105 million to reimburse more than 1,000 water systems for the cost of filtering atrazine from raw drinking water sources. The company, however, denies all wrongdoing.)

Included in the documents uncovered by the suits was a notebook where Syngenta’s communications manager detailed ways in which the company targeted Hayes. Among the entries: “Discredit Hayes”; “prevent citing TH (Tyrone Hayes) by revealing him as noncredible,” “find ways to ‘exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.'”

As part of Syngenta’s smear campaign, the company’s public relations team compiled a database of more than 100 “supportive third party stakeholders,” including 25 professors, who could defend atrazine and act as “spokespeople on Hayes.” The public relations team also suggested that Syngenta “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,” and eventually expanded the list to include such search terms as “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.”

Syngenta’s supportive third party stakeholders attacked Hayes’s research in such publications as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saying that his work had “little regard for assessment causality,” and that his claims had “significant implications for environmental and public health” but had not been “scientifically demonstrated.”

Syngenta’s attacks on Hayes extended far beyond the halls of academia and science. A freelance science columnist, who runs a nonprofit funded in part by donations from Syngenta, wrote an article for Fox News titled “Freak-Frog Fraud” that called Hayes a “junk scientist” and dismissed his “lame” conclusions as “just another of Hayes [sic] tricks.”

On another front, the Syngenta public relations team wrote editorials about the benefits of atrazine and about its critics’ “flimsy” science, which were sent to “third-party allies” who agreed to “byline” the articles. These articles ran in the Washington Times, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Des Moines Register, and the St. Cloud Times.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time that a large corporation or an industry has tried to squelch scientific research and ruin the professional and personal reputation of a scientist. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, wrote a book called “Doubt Is Their Product,” which examines what are known as “sound science” campaigns: efforts by interest groups and industries to attack credible scientific facts in order to slow or thwart regulation.

“Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier than debating the policy,” Michaels writes. “In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable.”

As for Hayes, he quit working for Syngenta in 2000, but has continued to conduct and publish research on atrazine’s effects on frogs. In October 2003, the European Commission removed atrazine from the market over concerns that the water supply could be contaminated, but the chemical is still being used in the U.S.

-Mary Ellen Egan