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The Frog of War

When biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that a top-selling herbicide messes with sex hormones, its manufacturer went into battle mode. Thus began one of the weirdest feuds in the history of science.

Things came to a head in February 2010, when Syngenta's Pastoor buttonholed Hayes in the Illinois Statehouse as Hayes prepared to testify before an Assembly committee. "Who's taking care of your family and your lab when you're traveling so much, Tea Bag?" Pastoor allegedly said. "Don't you worry about that?" The episode ended, Hayes claims, with Pastoor saying: "Next time you give a talk, I'm going to bring some of my good old boys and let you tell them how atrazine is making them gay. That should be fun. How about that, Tea Bag?"

Hayes was mystified: Was Pastoor referring to his initials, T.B. Hayes, or to the sexual act known as "teabagging"? Either way, he saw it as an effort to unnerve him prior to his testimony. "He wants me to think that if I go out for a run tonight, some people in a pickup truck are going to come," he says. Pastoor did not respond to my requests to get his side of the exchange; Syngenta's spokeswoman replied that "Dr. Hayes' unfounded allegations are not relevant to serious scientific or public policy discussions."

Hayes dashed off a furious rhyming response to Pastoor, Hosmer, and Syngenta attorney Alan Nadel. The next day, a message from Nadel to Pastoor landed back in his mailbox, clearly cc'd by accident: "Tim: I think you did hit a nerve. Alan." Hayes took it as proof that Syngenta officials were plotting to get under his skin. "They're probably Googling: 'Things that black people don't like to hear,'" he says.

Now that Hayes has tenure, the facade is no longer necessary. He can rap. He can cuss. And if anyone wants to question his legitimacy, "I'm coming at you, and I don't care who knows it."

A cooler head might have filed the emails away and gone back to his frogs. But Hayes was infected by an acute case of esprit d'escalier. He continued bombarding his nemeses with hip-hop battle taunts until that July, when Syngenta filed an ethics complaint with UC-Berkeley charging that the emails were not only "aggressive, unprofessional and insulting, but also salacious and lewd." It also went public with 102 pages of Hayes' emails. Exhibit A:

ya outa' luck...bouta show you how it is right now

see you're ****ed...(i didn't pull out) and ya fulla my j*z right now!

The messages went viral, lighting up the blogosphere with headlines like "Dr. Tyrone Hayes: Biologist, Cock-Fixated Megalomaniac Email Addict" (Gawker) and "Berkeley Scientist Gets Gully in Emails to Shady Pesticide Company 'I Ain't Scared O' You Mofos'" (Bossip). The New York Times and Science wrote about the scandal, as did the esteemed journal Nature—which has published Hayes' work.

"I spent a week in bed with a stomachache," Hayes recalls, mainly because he was worried how it would look to the foundations he relies on for research money—not that he would ever take the emails back. His critics were ecstatic. Googling "Dr. Tyrone Hayes" now returns paid results from groups like AgSense, an agribusiness coalition that leads its critique of Hayes by quoting his "propriety and professionalism" outburst. Alex Avery, who created an anti-Hayes video as part of his work with the Center for Global Food Issues, an anti-organics think tank, also quoted the emails, asking, "What does it take for a scientist to be discredited?"

More than this, apparently. The university's chief counsel ruled that no ethics violation had occurred but admonished both sides to behave. "We told him that his communications have the potential to reflect poorly on him and diminish the impact of his research-based arguments," says Mark Schlissel, Hayes' former dean. "He said he understood that." Sixteen scientists from a variety of disciplines wrote to the university in support of Hayes, casting Syngenta's move as a diversionary tactic. Others tried to distinguish between the messages and the messenger. "Science with an attitude is still science. Its validity doesn't depend on whether you like the behavior of an individual scientist," wrote environmental economist Frank Ackerman in a widely circulated Grist article.

Privately, though, Hayes' allies were aghast. His irreverence had always been an asset, attracting attention to atrazine just as Rachel Carson's impassioned lyricism drew attention to DDT. But now irreverence had tipped toward irrationality. "Ultimately, as scientists, we have to sell our research and make sure that people are aware of it," says Jason Rohr, the researcher who did the meta-analysis. "But we also have to be objective."

When I ask Hayes what possessed him to engage with Syngenta in this particular way, he's silent for a moment. "Wow, that's probably a long conversation," he says.

When I ask Hayes what possessed him to engage with Syngenta in this particular way, he's silent for a moment. "Wow, that's probably a long conversation," he says. The answer is related to his motto: IDGAF. For him, not giving a fuck means refusing the Faustian bargain that in exchange for a shot at professional respect you have to leave your true self at home. In his youth, Hayes told me, he hadn't even wanted to sign his full name to his paintings, because Tyrone was such a stereotypically black name. But that kind of cultural inauthenticity, he now believes, embodies the same sort of dishonesty that allows someone to fudge data on a contract job. "How can you be one person in your personal life and another in your professional life?" Hayes asks.

Now that he's tenured, the facade is no longer necessary. He can rap. He can cuss. And if anyone wants to question his legitimacy, "I'm coming at you, and I don't care who knows it." That's more or less what he means when he signs his Syngenta emails "my name is tyrone."

It's been about 18 months since the email uproar, and Hayes has concluded that it has helped him more than it hurt. "Thanks to their advertising," he gloats, "I'm giving 129 talks in the next year." It has also brought his work to new audiences via pop-culture blogs. "Now I've got minorities who would never have had access to this information," he says. And that's important because minorities are most at risk of exposure; half of America's farmworkers are Hispanic, according to the USDA. "They have levels of atrazine in their urine that are 24,000 times what we use in our laboratory," Hayes adds.

In 2009, a New York Times investigation found that 33 million Americans are exposed to atrazine through drinking water. EPA data from 2010 shows contamination exceeding the federal limit in 9 out of 10 states monitoring it—several Midwestern water districts reported between 9 and 18 times the limit. (Atrazine's tendency to contaminate water supplies is one reason the European Union voted to ban it in 2003.)

The EPA has claimed these spikes are not a health hazard. Yet epidemiological studies have found links between prenatal atrazine exposure and birth defects, premature birth, and low birth weight—even at extremely low concentrations. As Hayes explains, "0.1 ppb is not a low dose at all. Estrogen is active at levels that are 100 to 1,000 times lower than that. So in terms of an endocrine disruptor, that's a high dose."

The EPA is weighing this argument as it reconsiders whether to ban or restrict atrazine. In July, its advisory panel, citing "strong" epidemiological evidence, criticized the agency for understating the chemical's carcinogenic potential. But with the EPA's review of the science now headed into its fourth year, Hayes doesn't expect much in the way of decisive action. Back in 2005, the Natural Resources Defense Council obtained documents revealing that agency officials met privately with Syngenta more than 40 times while evaluating atrazine's toxicity. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund reported that fewer than 20 percent of the papers the EPA relied upon in its past decision-making were peer-reviewed, while at least half were conducted by scientists with a financial stake in the product.

The other reason Hayes is skeptical involves the power of the corn lobby. Corn farmers like atrazine because it increases yields and lets them cut back on plowing, reducing erosion. "Frogs are doing quite fine in Kansas," says Jere White, head of the Kansas Corn Growers and Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Associations. "Anecdotally, I'd say they must not have read Dr. Hayes' studies."

Hayes is working on several new papers, including one he contends will be his most disturbing yet. It will show that male frogs exposed to atrazine early in life have feminized brains and tend to assume the bottom position when copulating, even when placed in a tank with females. While these frogs lack female sex organs, Hayes explains, their hormonal profile looks female, and "they have an identity that says female."

The last time we spoke, Hayes was getting ready to shoot Syngenta an email announcing his upcoming publications. "I think it'll just be informative," he told me. "Just to let them know. That's why they call me Tyrone."

*Correction: The original version of this article, which also appeared in our January/February 2012 print edition, misidentified the consulting company that hired Hayes as Pacific EcoRisk, and mistakenly linked to the homepage of that company. The company Hayes actually worked for, EcoRisk, no longer exists.

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