Frogs, chemicals, & talk of confused gender identity shake up bureaucrats
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2004:
ST. PAUL–An apparent attempt to muzzle University of
California at Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes instead enabled him to
tell the world in October 2004 that frogs, toads, and salamanders
appear to be abruptly disappearing due to the effects of atrazine.
Atrazine, an endocrine-disrupting herbicide, is used on
two-thirds of the cornfields in the U.S. and 90% of the sugar cane
plantations. Popular with farmers for 45 years, it may be the
most-used farm chemical worldwide. Residues can persist in soil for
more than a year and in groundwater for longer, but by comparison to
paraquat, a leading rival herbicide, atrazine breaks down
relatively quickly, and is safer for applicators and field workers
who may have accidental exposure.
Unfortunately, Hayes testified at an October 26 Minnesota
Senate hearing, even low levels of atrazine “chemically castrate and
feminize” male frogs, fish, and some other wildlife.
Atrazine may also trigger prostate cancer in male humans,
Hayes said, citing studies of men who work in proximity to it and
the results of laboratory testing on various mammal species.
“Hayes was invited to speak to the Minnesota Senate
Environment and Natural Resources Committee after Minnesota Pollution
Control Agency commissioner Sheryl Corrigan withdrew an earlier offer
for him to make the keynote speech at an agency-sponsored
conference,” explained Dennis Lien of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Denying that Hayes’ speaking appearance was cancelled due to
objections from farmers, Corrigan eventually offered Hayes a lesser
speaking role under pressure from a coalition of 20 environmental
groups including the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club,
but Hayes declined, opting to testify to the lawmakers instead.
“Initially, before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
uninvited me, they asked if I would remove the words ‘atrazine’
and ‘pesticide’ from the title of my talk,” Hayes told Minneapolis
Star Tribune environment writer Tom Meersman.
Hayes shared e-mails from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
meeting planner and coordinator Jennifer Anthony-Powell that included
at least three warnings about political issues associated with
In the Minnesota Senate chambers, Hayes “spent almost two
hours explaining research that he and others have done demonstrating
defects in amphibians, birds, reptiles, and fish, as well as
health problems in people, after they have been exposed to trace
amounts of atrazine,” Lien of the Pioneer Press recounted. “Often,
Hayes said, sexual development is affected, with creatures forming
both male and female organs.”
Minnesota state senator John Marty, a member of the
Democratic Federation of Labor Party, announced after Hayes’
presentation that he will hold hearings on atrazine during the 2005
legislative session, and will consider drafting a bill to ban or
restrict use of it.
The European Union in 2003 refused to re-register atrazine,
designating it for phase-out, but it won re-registration in the U.S.
after the maker, the U.S. affiliate of the Swiss-based firm Syngenta
Crop Protection, hired former U.S. Senate majority leader Robert
Dole to lobby the White House. Dole at least once met with Joe
Hagin, deputy chief of staff for U.S. President George W. Bush, to
discuss the registration process, Associated Press writer Frederick
Frommer disclosed on October 27.
Frommer worked from documents obtained by the Natural
Resources Defense Council via the Freedom of Information Act, he
said. Syngenta Crop Protection paid $260,000 to the law firm Alston
& Bird for Dole’s services in 2003-2004, Frommer wrote.
Syngenta spokesperson Sherry Ford told Meersman of the Star
Tribune that the company has invested more than $2 million since 2001
to research atrazine ecotoxicity.
“What we are seeing in studies we have funded does not
support the conclusions that Hayes comes to,” Ford told Meersman.
Hayes countered with studies funded by the National Science
Foundation and other independent sources that showed sexual
development abnormalities in goldfish, smallmouth bass, salmon,
and even alligators.
Meersman in 1995 broke the story of children finding deformed
frogs near Henderson, Minnesota that touched off a global
investigation of the phenomenon. As findings of deformities spread,
fungal diseases and exposure to ultraviolet radiation due to damage
to the earth’s ozone layer were identified as possible causes. But
none of the other possibilities are as ubiquitous as atrazine, or as
easily enter amphibian habitat.
“Amphibians are one of nature’s best indicators of global
environmental health,” Conservation International president Russell
A. Mittermeier said in an October 13 press release, disclosing the
results of a global amphibian census undertaken for the World
Conservation Union. Besides responding quickly to pollutants,
amphibians influence entire ecosystems as staple prey of animals
including fish, birds, and raccoons.
The amphibian census, directed by Simon Stuard, found that
“Of 5,743 amphibian species, 1,856 (32%) are threatened with
extinction,” the press release said. “That does not include 1,300
species for which we lack sufficient information to analyze, but
which scientists believe are also threatened.” Forty-three percent
of all amphibians are declining in number, the study found, with 1%
increasing, 27% stable, and 29% unknown. “About 427 species are
considered critically endangered, 761 are endangered, and 668 are
vulnerable,” the Stuard team concluded.
Among the most unique North American amphibians now in
decline is the hellbender. About 150 million years old as a class,
hellbenders occur in 16 states, grow up to two feet long, and live
up to 50 years.
“The Missouri Department of Conservation commissioned a
survey of all hellbender streams in the late 1990s,” Sara Shipley of
the St. Louis Post Dispatch recently recalled.
“What we found was, in every river we surveyed, the
population had decreased by 75% to 85%,” Southwest Missouri State
University behavioral ecologist Alicia Mathis told Shipley.
Investigators subsequently identified atrazine exposure in
field runoff as probably the biggest single cause of the hellbender
Similar findings emerged from a separate study of toad
populations in England, done by Froglife director Tom Langton for
English Nature. However, Langton and English Nature tentatively
blamed vehicular traffic, which they believe has increasingly
isolated and fragmented toad habitat.
Roadkills have devastated the turtle population of the U.S.
Northeast. James P. Gibbs and David Steen of the State University
College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, New York,
recently reported in the journal Conservation Biology that up to 95%
of the snapping turtles and 74% of the painted turtles living near
busy roads in the Syracuse area are male. This appears to be because
males move around less during the spring and summer. Studies done
earlier in New Hampshire and Florida produced similar findings.
In the southern U.S., however, turtles are even more
threatened by hunters who collect them for sale to Asian live
markets. North Carolina in 2003 adopted a new law to restrict turtle
hunting, after the Raleigh News & Observer revealed that the numbers
of turtles trapped for commercial sale in North Carolina had jumped
from 460 in 2000 to more than 23,000 in 2002.