Frog-pocalypse Not: Amphibians And Atrazine

Alex Avery Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues
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An herbicide popular with farmers but targeted by environmentalists because it is supposedly responsible for chemically castrating frogs has been absolved of the crime. A paper published in October in the Public Library of Science One (PLOS One) reveals that frogs are thriving in America’s agricultural heartland. More explosively, it shows that the researcher who pushed hardest for a ban of the herbicide called Atrazine, sat on the exculpatory data for a decade while high-stakes regulatory battles raged at the state and federal level.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes burst onto the national and international scene in early 2002 with research published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claiming that “amphibian species exposed to atrazine in the wild could be at risk of impaired sexual development” and that atrazine “may be a factor in global amphibian declines.”

Ever since, Dr. Hayes has played a central role in a long-running drama over the safety of atrazine, first used widely as a farm weed killer in the 1950s. Until Hayes’ laboratory research, no studies had found significant health or environmental concerns over atrazine and its use, even among farm workers. Over the next decade, Hayes and his group published several high-profile papers questioning the environmental safety of atrazine, such as a March, 2010 paper published in PNAS where Hayes again highlighted “the role that atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting pesticides likely play in global amphibian declines.”

By the mid- to late-2000s, state and federal regulators were re-examining the available scientific evidence, funding new research, and deliberating restrictions on atrazine use amid environmental activist calls for outright bans. Essentially all of the controversy was based on laboratory findings from Dr. Hayes’ group at UC Berkeley.

But when regulators asked Dr. Hayes for his data, not just his conclusions and assertions, he balked. According to 2005 testimony of Anne Lindsay, then deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, “Dr. Hayes claims not only that his laboratory has repeated the findings many times in experiments with thousands of frogs, but that other scientists have also replicated his results. EPA, however, has never seen either the results from any independent investigator published in peer-reviewed scientific journals nor the raw data from Dr. Hayes’ additional experiments.” They still haven’t.

Now we know that Dr. Hayes knew all along that wild frogs were thriving in habitats throughout the mid-West, both near to and distant from cornfields where atrazine was used. In 2001 Hayes found frogs “by the thousands” in the irrigation ditches servicing Nebraska cornfields. In the just-published field research from 2002-2005, Hayes reports “We detected all possible amphibian species in each study area.” Hayes also reported finding “deformities in [less than] 5%” of young frogs (completely within the historical range) “and proportions were not associated with triazine [i.e. atrazine] concentrations.” The researchers concluded that, “Overall, our results suggest amphibian populations were not faring differently among these four conservation areas, regardless of their proximity to corn production.”

So all the while a public policy debate raged that held the fate of an entire industry in limbo, these researchers just sat on their data and continued to falsely insinuate that atrazine played a key role in “global amphibian declines.”

I had a lengthy email exchange with Dr. Hayes back in January of 2005, just as this controversy started raging. My key question over the course of nearly a dozen emails was the relevance of his lab observations to wild frogs. Hayes blustered his way around the question, hiding behind the “it’s complex” excuse and abruptly ending our exchange.

In recent presentations Hayes talks of research he is conducting along the Salinas River in California, one of the most intensive vegetable farming areas in the U.S., but where essentially no atrazine is used because they don’t grow corn. Having struck out twice, Hayes will probably never conduct field research on wild frogs in America’s Corn Belt again. He can’t afford to disprove his theory a third time.

Einstein once stated that “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.” Dr. Hayes has violated that sacred trust. He knew that the narrative he peddled was false; his own field research had utterly and repeatedly failed to support his narrative of eco-destruction. But rather than spoil that narrative and remove the draconian regulatory shadow darkening rural communities, Hayes remained silent while the frogs chirped through the night.

Alex Avery is the director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues.

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Alex Avery