Monsanto’s Dirty Tricks: Atrazine. . .

February 3, 2016 in News by RBN



How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health

Dan Fagan, Marianne Lavelle, and the Center for Public Integrity / Birch Lane Publishing Group 1996

Spinning Science

Brazen cheating on the scale of IBT or Craven Laboratories is rare–or, at least, rarely uncovered. But subtle, sophisticated slanting of scientific research is part of the everyday strategy of chemical companies enmeshed in regulatory battles.

Lyle Jackson learned all about that in the summer of 1985. That is when he concluded that the so-called experts who had flown into Fayette County, Iowa, to test drinking-water wells for herbicide contamination were looking in the wrong places. The story of how that happened, a tale pieced together from internal EPA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and from interviews with those involved, illustrates just how far a chemical manufacturer will go to make data come out its way.

Jackson had more than a passing interest in the issue. As the sanitarian, or chief public health official, of Fayette County, it was his job to ensure that the wells were safe. And as a longtime resident of the heavily agricultural county, he knew that dousing fields of corn and soybeans with atrazine, alachlor, and other weedkillers is a ubiquitous springtime ritual in Fayette County.

Like most Iowans, Jackson had never considered herbicides a threat to drinking water until 1984, when Richard Kelley had launched a study of contaminants in the state’s drinking-water supplies. An official of what was known then as the Iowa Department of Water, Air, and Waste Management, Kelley had not planned to include atrazine and alachlor in his survey. But George Hallberg, a researcher at the Iowa Geological Survey, had found surprisingly high herbicide levels in water supplies in a small 1983 study, so Kelley decided to include the weed-killers in his statewide survey-and ended up finding them in almost every water source he tested. “When we got hits on alachlor and atrazine, the pesticide industry came down on us like a bunch of stormtroopers,” Kelley recalls. “They came out and publicly criticized our study, and it was routine to get phone calls from their local reps telling me what an idiot I was.”

Now, in the summer of 1985, Monsanto was spending $4 million to conduct its own nationwide monitoring studies under orders from the EPA, which was in the middle of -its special review of alachlor. Kelley and Jackson did not like what they saw when they looked at the maps that showed which Iowa wells, lakes, and rivers Monsanto was sampling as part of its nationwide studies. “It was not really an objective type of study,” Jackson recalls. In Fayette County, he said, Monsanto was sampling deep wells in clay soils where herbicides were unlikely to turn up, instead of shallow wells in sandy soils where they were common. Kelley looked at all the sampling sites in Iowa and came to the same conclusion. “The study was systematic-it was systematically designed not to find the product,” he recalls.

Without speaking to each other about it, the men did something each had never done before: write the EPA. In his August 7, 1985, letter to the agency, Kelley noted that Monsanto claimed that the sampling sites “were picked in such a way as to maximize the potential for alachlor exposure.”8 In reality, he wrote, the opposite was true. Seven weeks later, Jackson wrote his letter. “Sandy areas of the county were carefully blocked out and avoided. Only those soil association areas with soils having moderate clay content and thick protective depths were included in the sampling area …. My intention is not to be negative about this study, but I believe it to be heavily biased based upon the selection procedure of the sample wells.”9

Today, Monsanto contends that Kelley and Jackson were both wrong about the groundwater and surface-water studies. “Nobody’s criticized the scientific validity of either of those studies,” says Andrew Klein, a Monsanto research manager who helped to design the 1985 surveys. Lakes and rivers, he says, were chosen at random for testing at the EPA’s request, while the nearly 250 well-testing sites nationwide were carefully selected to represent soil conditions across the United States. “We did not do a survey of Fayette County, we did a survey of alachlor use, and we looked at vulnerable and less vulnerable areas,” Klein says.

The EPA’s chief groundwater expert had a very different view of Monsanto’s 1985 tests. In April of that year, Stuart Z. Cohen had written Monsanto and listed in his letter the EPA’s objections to the way the company had selected its proposed sampling sites. The project, he wrote, was not the “worst case” study Monsanto had promised. Because the study was being required by the EPA as part of its review of alachlor, the agency’s “significant concerns . . . must be addressed before the study can begin,” he wrote.10 A month later, however, Monsanto responded with a letter declaring that the study “is well under way.”11 That was a surprise to Cohen and, apparently, to the rest of the EPA.

In a memo to himself that he inserted in the official EPA record, Cohen recounted his frustration in dealing with Monsanto’s groundwater consultant, Olin Braids of Geraghty and Miller, Inc. “I also expressed my displeasure about the overall progress of the groundwater study,” Cohen wrote. “This was triggered when Mr. Braids told me that wells bad already been sampled [emphasis in original] in a half dozen counties. I pointed out that we did not even have an agreed-upon protocol for the study …. I said that I could cover myself by stating in a memo to the file, which this is, that I disagree with the study, but my doing that won’t help Steve Schatzow [the director of the Office of Pesticide Programs] make a decision next fall.” Cohen added that “this is one of those instances where a chemical has fallen between the cracks of the registration standards and special review programs and where the necessary initiative to resolve the problem was not taken. I’m afraid it’s too late to correct the matter this year, and we may have lost a whole summer’s worth of monitoring data.”12

“Stuart would go crazy over this stuff,” remembers Arthur Perler, who, as the drinking-water office’s chief of science and technology, worked closely with Cohen. “Everybody knew throughout the agency that to some extent the pesticide data was a joke because it was provided by industry. Monsanto was especially adept at throwing a lot of money at surveys. They clearly had a lot of data, and tried to convince us to use that data. They were not entirely forthcoming on how the data was collected, the quality of the data, and were helpful only in ways they wanted to be, and not in ways that the agency wanted at the time.”

In their defense, Monsanto executives say that the company was facing an EPA deadline to launch the 1985 studies by the spring planting season. But in retrospect, they acknowledge, the company might have been better off asking the EPA for an extension to allow more time to work out an acceptable study instead of forging ahead despite Cohen’s objections. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and our best judgment was that it’s better to go get some data than to sit here naked of data trying to defend this product,” Patricia Kenworthy, the company’s director of regulatory affairs, says.

By the end of 1986, Cohen had left the EPA, and Perler quit soon after that. Today, Cohen runs a small pesticide consulting firm; his major clients are golf course operators. He says that he only vaguely remembers the 1985 Monsanto dispute, which was resolved the following year, when Monsanto brought in a new consultant who devised a different protocol for a much larger $4 million groundwater survey that would not be completed until the early 1990s.

But just as Cohen had predicted in his memo, the questionable 1985 Monsanto studies were the most important groundwater surveys that the EPA had on hand in the fall of 1986 when it was time for Schatzow to decide whether to ban alachlor. Groundwater contamination was not the only issue that Schatzow needed to consider in deciding whether to ban the weed-killer, but it was one of the most important. Yet the EPA, stuck with the questionable 1985 Monsanto surveys, dodged it. Declaring that “the risks associated with alachlor exposure through groundwater cannot be adequately assessed at this time,” the agency did not include tainted well water in its formal calculation of the health risks posed by alachlor, which the EPA decided not to ban.

Did Monsanto save its prize weed-killer from being banned by refusing to conduct the groundwater surveys the way the EPA wanted? There is no way to know for sure. Monsanto’s Klein says that the EPA’s decision not to ban alachlor had nothing to do with the controversy over the 1985 monitoring studies. Because the EPA did not think there was enough good data, he says, the agency did not calculate a specific estimate of the cancer risk from drinking water.

Even without that formal calculation, the drinking water issue was still part of the EPA’s overall decision, according to Klein. “They did not say that the exposure from groundwater is x, but a very big part of their overall assessment was the potential exposure through drinking water,” he says. “The nuance here is that they couldn’t characterize it but they could assess it. They could evaluate it.” Besides, he says, the EPA could have revisited the issue-but chose not to-after Monsanto completed an acceptable monitoring study in the early 1990s. That newer study concluded that about 1,200 wells in the Midwest contain alachlor at levels higher than the EPA’s safety level of two parts per billion-a result very similar to the company’s first study, he says.

However, Daniel Barolo, who now holds Schatzow’s old job as the director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, says that the lack of good monitoring data may well have affected the agency’s decision. There is no way to know whether the EPA would have taken a harder line with Monsanto if it had good monitoring data. But, he added, “anybody in a regulatory management position would tell you that it is difficult to get a handle on exposed populations at risk given the absence and the [low] quality of some groundwater monitoring studies.”

And so Monsanto, by attacking independent monitoring studies and disregarding the agency’s objections to its surveys, outmaneuvered critics such as Jackson, Kelley, and Cohen and muddied the waters at the EPA when it was time for the agency to decide what to do about alachlor.


  1. EPA alachlor public docket, 26 September 1985.

  2. EPA alachlor public docket, 15 April, 1985.

  3. EPA alachlor public docket, 29 May 1985.

  4. EPA alachlor public docket, 18 July 1985.