In an era where scientists are eyed with suspicion and science itself is treated as something to be debated by politicians and industry lobbyists, the last thing you'd ever want to be is the researcher whose findings conflict with corporate interests. You might find yourself followed, your reputation dismantled, your very well-being threatened -- all of which happened to University of California-Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes when he discovered that atrazine, one of our most commonly used herbicides, might be causing gender and reproductive deformities in frogs, with potential implications for human health.
Hayes' research was enough to provoke a years-long war between him and Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine; the saga already got the 8,000-word treatment last year in the New Yorker as well as in a 2011 Mother Jones story. But filmmaker Jonathan Demme told Salon he felt there was even more to add to Hayes' story, which he produced in mini-documentary form for the first episode of "The New Yorker Presents," a new series streaming on Amazon Prime.
In the film, Demme and Hayes return to the South Carolina neighborhood where he grew up, and through conversations with his family trace his history in a way that provides a new answer to the question Syngenta's communications manager, in notes that eventually were made public, wrote that she was determined to figure out: "What's motivating Hayes?"
Salon spoke with Demme and Hayes about the documentary's creation and about Hayes' life and work beyond atrazine. Our conversations, which follow, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I was hoping you could start by telling me a little bit about what appealed to you about Hayes as a documentary subject?
Jonathan Demme: I’ll tell you the long version and you can figure out what the answer is. My daughter sent me a copy of the article on Tyrone the moment the magazine came out and said, “You’ve got to read this. Wouldn’t this make a great movie?” Then I said, “Oh my God. This guy is so amazing. It would make a great movie.” I called a friend of mine who works at The New Yorker and asked how people explore rights to New Yorker stories, but he wasn't sure. A couple months later, I get a phone call and I’m invited to do a documentary for the premiere edition of New Yorker Online and I’m like, “What? That’s great! Which one?” And they sent me the Tyrone Hayes story.
I dove in. What appealed to me was that it’s in a day and age where whistleblowing has become very dangerous, and whistleblowers are few and far between. Here’s a whistleblower who actually was victorious, and I thought, wow, that’s a great story. The fact that Tyrone’s black has a lot of resonance for me. I’m very interested in the state of the black nation and I thought, wow. This guy is really something. That’s how I got into it.
Could you talk about the significance of going with him to his home and to his community? For me, it created a much different portrayal of what’s motivating his work, as opposed to what campaigns to discredit him are suggesting.
My favorite takeaway from this whole experience has been that. Rachel [Aviv]’s New Yorker article is wonderful; it was written almost with a film noir-y kind of approach. It hinged on, “Is there any possibility that Syngenta’s position that Tyrone is unhinged is possible?” And then of course, a full portrait emerges.
I wanted to know what makes this man tick. Whenever I do a portrait documentary, and I love doing portrait documentaries, I think that’s always a thing that you want to answer. I was much more interested in that than I was in kind of re-playing the Syngenta story that Rachel had done so beautifully in the magazine. I requested, “Could we go to your home town? Could we meet your folks? Can we see where you live now and kind of follow you like that, like a fly on the wall?” Going to South Carolina opened up this extraordinary perspective.
By the way, I’m very hopeful and committed to the idea of doing an expanded version of this documentary. We certainly have an even deeper, richer story that we can tell. When we went down there, it opened up with this history, this legacy of an African-American going all the way back to slavery times. Hearing about his grandmother, and visiting his grandmother’s house, and getting into the dimension of the inter-marriage, and how in the olden days passing for white was considered a value and what have you -- seeing Tyrone in that context, and seeing him more and more as an outsider, who was deeply gifted with this brain of his, and how he dared, as a super-outsider, to go to an Ivy League college. He talks about how marginalized he felt there. But he hung in and he graduated and he winds up at Berkeley. Now -- and I hope our 15-minute version shows this to a certain extent or gives a taste of it -- he gathers around him all these outsiders to become his lab assistants and his students to conduct these experiments with. He provides a home and a career path to people who need that, who for one reason or another, the decks are stacked against them: by being a woman in male-dominated science world, or whatever.
By the time we finished the filming, I thought, this is the real Tyrone Hayes story. The Syngenta chapter is just a blip in his life. He is not simply the whistleblower who went toe-to-toe with big chemistry. He is a dedicated humanist who is immersed in his science, turns other people on to the impact of that realm of science on the planet and on mankind. He just brings all these people in. He’s like a major, major American. To me, he’s just like a superhero. And the Syngenta chapter? Yeah, that’s cool. But check out who he really is and the totality of his life thus far. Then you’ve really got a story.
Did it seem to you that this outsider status was one of the reasons why he was able to stand up to Syngenta and hold out for so long when they were attacking him?
Yes, I do, and I hope that the short version of our film gets this across. He drew tremendous strength from his mom and dad. There were times when I asked Tyrone, not in the film, but I was like, “Dude, why didn’t you just sue these people?” And he said, “No. I’m not into that.” He took it all with a strong resilience and with a sense of humor. He didn’t let it get him down. And I do think very much that a life that started out in a very major way as an outsider -- in segregated South Carolina, black student in the Ivy League, black scientist showing up at Berkeley -- that’s a strengthening dynamic. There’s no doubt about it.
This is your realm, but in a day in age when we are destroying ourselves and our planet, these people who dare to look at that and try to do something about it, like Tyrone and his band of warriors, hats off to them, right?
Jonathan Demme told me it was his idea to follow you back to your home and your community. Were you apprehensive about doing that?
Tyrone Hayes: No, I wasn't apprehensive at all. Growing up in South Carolina at my grandmother's house, there were places in that childhood that were pivotal in my career and who I am and what I ended up doing and why I love what I'm doing. There were some things that didn't make it into the final cut, like going to see my old science teacher who played a very critical, important role, but by the time I got to high school I already had the love of biology. That's where it started, so there was no apprehension at all.
I became aware of your story from the original New Yorker article. What has the response to that piece been like for you?
The single most common term that comes to my mind is "game-changer." It was important in several ways: one is, I think, the message. The problems of atrazine, the problems with industry acting poorly, all of those things became available to a much wider audience than others that I had had through scientific literature or through news media. Just the widespread sharing of information, I think, was incredibly important.
It was also a game-changer in the sense that many of the things Syngenta has done in acting poorly, for those documents to become available. Rachel Aviv wrote the whole side of the Syngenta story based on their own handwritten documents, so the things I could tell you I knew they were doing, like buying my name on the Internet and planning to harass my father and my family and my students... I knew those things were happening. But to see that they would actually write things down like "set a trap" or that their goal was to discredit me, that really bought a lot of peace of mind. I felt like I had persevered. I've been with this burden for a long, long time and finally, because of their own handwritten documents it was now publicly available.
Lots of people came out with financial support for the lab. People mailed in checks to support my laboratory based on the article! So it had a very positive impact.
Has Syngenta backed off at all?
Well, after the documentary airs [we spoke prior to the release] I suspect I'll get letters from their lawyers and a little more harassment. Their actual attacks center around a new scientific publication from my laboratory or some news media or new type of exposure. There were attacks and letters written around the New Yorker article, around my appearance on Democracy Now, and so I suspect there will be attacks coming now because of the documentary.
Could you tell me a little bit about the implications of your findings thus far?
Atrazine is significant because it is an active endocrine disruptor. It can have devastating effects on individuals during development as well as on populations, so there's a big concern for wildlife and fish and amphibians. There's also growing concern for public health and for human exposure. There are a number of studies showing effects like increased breast cancer, increased prostate cancer and genital malformations in boys exposed when the mother is pregnant.
These findings are backed by laboratory control studies that show that atrazine can do these types of things to animals in the wild. The real big concern is both for environmental exposure as well as exposure of wildlife and, in particular, exposure to minority populations. Minorities are more likely to live and work in areas where they're exposed to chemicals like atrazine, which we know are associated with health disparity and adverse health outcomes. In particular, the Hispanic population working in agriculture is a big concern, not just for atrazine. Atrazine, I think, is a poster child for what we need to be worried about in this day and time.
We're used to seeing attacks like this on people who study climate change, who get challenged on the grounds of their findings being inconclusive or have their motives questioned. What do you feel is misunderstood about your research, that prompts these same kinds of attacks?
I think one falsehood that the companies are putting out is that my work is the only work that shows that atrazine causes problems, or that my work hasn't been replicated. Those statements are absolutely, 100 percent false.
The other thing that's important is that it's not just my work but dozens of laboratories around the world have shown that atrazine causes hormonal problems in everything from fish to amphibians to reptiles to birds to laboratory rodents and people. In fact, I just published a paper with 21 authors from 12 different countries showing that these effects have been reproduced in laboratories around the world. But what Syngenta does is they pick out one person they think is vulnerable and they lead the public to think it's just one crazy guy who's done science that's not repeatable. And that's just simply not true, certainly not for atrazine.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the "East of Eden" passage [about the frogs in California's Salinas Valley] that you read at the end of the documentary? Did you pick that out?
When I talk in my lectures about what's happened to Salinas, I use that piece of work that was written in 1952, around the time we started using all these pesticides and chemicals in agriculture, because it describes the abundance of amphibians in Salinas prior to chemical-based agriculture. I think what's important about the piece is that in ways it's even more important than a piece of scientific literature. It wasn't a scientist going around counting frogs, it was a literary artist who noticed that the frogs were such a part of the landscape that he included it in his work. I love that piece because it shows how different that habitat and that area has become since that time.
The other reason I love the piece is that I really advocate for liberal arts education and I think it's important to really learn in all kinds of different places to get different points of views. I'm being hypocritical because when I was in college all I wanted to take was science; I hated having to take comparative literature and all these other things, but hopefully now students can see the value of really being well-rounded and getting a good liberal arts education.
To answer your question about whether I picked that piece out: no. I was giving a talk once and someone in the audience was a scholar of Steinbeck and said, hey, you know he talks about frogs in the book, and that's how I was introduced to it. There are actually a couple of passages where he talks about frogs in there.
And so what's next for you? Are you continuing to focus on atrazine?
As I see it now, I focus on atrazine in the sense that I still think there's a lot to be done with public education and policy, again, using it as a poster child. In my own scientific work, atrazine is really just a tool. It's really one of the chemical tools we're using to try to understand things like how you develop into a male or a female and how you develop, for example, your gender identity; to try to understand the roles of hormones and chemicals in breast cancer.
It is the focus in terms of my involvement in public and in trying to raise awareness of what we're doing to the environment -- although, I guess there it's a tool as well. Really, it's just the poster child to point out to us that we need to rethink how we're doing things and how we're regulating things and how we're treating wildlife and how we're treating each other.