Newly uncovered internal documents suggest that the chemical powerhouse, Syngenta, has attempted to clandestinely manipulate scientific investigations concerning the connection between its best-selling herbicide and Parkinson’s disease.
Several independent studies suggest that Syngenta’s herbicide, paraquat, may lead to neurological changes characteristic of Parkinson’s. However, Syngenta remains insistent that such links are “sporadic” and “unconfirmed”.
Interestingly, the very evidence Syngenta uses to vouch for paraquat’s harmlessness is the same data that, as per sources like the Guardian and the New Lede, they have discreetly shaped over years with the assistance of their scientists, lawyers, and executives in the US and UK.
These documents expose a series of maneuvers: leveraging a renowned UK scientist and other external researchers to produce studies without revealing ties to Syngenta; providing inaccurate information to regulators about unfavorable findings by its researchers; and hiring lawyers to subtly modify scientific papers to diminish concerning results.
Another intriguing revelation is that Syngenta instituted a “Swat team” to swiftly address any new independent studies that might jeopardize its ability to market paraquat. This team, also known as the “Paraquat Communications Management Team”, was tasked with rapidly assessing any newly-published research and strategizing a counter-response, which might even involve producing a “scientific counter-argument”.
Syngenta’s primary objective was to globally dispel the idea that paraquat could be a contributing factor to Parkinson’s, as per these documents.
Further unearthing the company’s tactics, an external attorney recruited by Syngenta was asked to review and advise on changes to minutes from internal meetings about paraquat’s safety. The attorney advised modifications to certain terminologies and findings that might not favor the company’s defense of the herbicide.
Additional disclosures indicate that Syngenta was cognizant, as early as half a century ago, that paraquat could potentially concentrate in human brain tissue. These documents also demonstrated Syngenta’s knowledge of paraquat’s possible harmful effects on the central nervous system. Furthermore, the company allegedly secretly prevented a prominent scientist researching Parkinson’s causes from joining an advisory board for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the main US agency overseeing paraquat and similar products.
The release of these documents comes at a crucial juncture for Syngenta, as the company is soon to face legal proceedings in the US. Here, plaintiffs, including farmers, allege that Syngenta’s paraquat product is a causative agent for Parkinson’s.
Syngenta’s Quest to Control Research Narratives
Back in 2003, Syngenta had reason to rejoice with its “blockbuster” herbicide, Gramoxone, sold under the brand name of paraquat, skyrocketing in popularity. Predictions even pegged sales at a whopping $420 million. Concurrently, however, multiple independent studies began highlighting possible links between the herbicide and the growing prevalence of Parkinson’s, especially among farmers. This neurological disorder, diagnosed in about 90,000 Americans annually, manifests as tremors, muscle stiffness, loss of coordination, and speech difficulties.
To counteract this mounting evidence, documents reveal that Syngenta planned a comprehensive approach aiming to proactively counter potential threats. This involved influencing subsequent studies by independent researchers.
A central part of this strategy was to collaborate with external scientists capable of authoring papers aligned with Syngenta’s stance on paraquat.
Despite their aggressive promotion of research advocating paraquat’s safety, Syngenta deliberately withheld internal animal studies that examined the herbicide’s effects on mice brains.
The Role of Legal Counsel in Scientific Discussions
In early 2008, a gathering of Syngenta scientists in Atlanta, Georgia, aimed to discuss the latest findings on paraquat’s ties to Parkinson’s. Jeffrey Wolff, a corporate defense lawyer, was present. Instead of purely scientific discourse, Wolff provided guidelines on note-taking and communication to potentially shield the company’s findings by invoking “attorney-client privilege” if litigation occurred.
Wolff deepened his involvement by advising on a scientific strategy document detailing planned paraquat studies. He provided insights to ensure the document was litigation-proof.
For instance, Wolff raised concerns about certain statements in Syngenta’s documentation, suggesting that these might be misconstrued if viewed out of context. He made specific recommendations, such as rephrasing certain statements about paraquat’s effects on the human brain.
It is now widely accepted that environmental factors, including pollutants and pesticides, significantly contribute to Parkinson’s, though genetic causes only account for a minority of cases. Despite this, Wolff recommended significant changes to Syngenta’s documentation, effectively diluting the links between environmental factors and Parkinson’s.
In another significant move in 2009, Wolff advised on the legal involvement in research, specifically concerning interviews with former Syngenta employees in England, emphasizing the potential confidentiality provided when lawyers, rather than scientists, conduct interviews.
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