A scientist at one of the world’s largest chemical companies made the difficult decision to speak out publicly when a “new generation” of executives dismissed concerns about a mass-produced weedkiller he had been voicing for decades.
Going public has been a “relief,” says toxicologist Jon Heylings. He worked for 28 years for Syngenta, formerly ICI, where his efforts focused on developing safer formulations of the herbicide paraquat. But in 1990, he began to constantly raise internal concerns about the management of what was one of the company’s best-selling products.
Although its use was banned in the UK in 2007, paraquat continues to be manufactured for export in Huddersfield to this day. The herbicide, linked to thousands of deaths worldwide, is manufactured by a number of companies, including Syngenta. It is extremely toxic and causes death from multiple organ failure over days. There is no cure and indeed no return of a single sip.
One of the many methods used to try to solve this problem in the 1970s, the company began adding PP796 – an agent known as an emetic, which aims to make those who consume toxic substances vomit before they quit. ‘a lethal dose does not enter the bloodstream.
But Heylings, who spoke to the Guardian as part of a joint investigation with Greenpeace Unearthed and Public Eye, believes the company and its previous corporate incarnations have known for years that the amount of emetic it adds to the paraquat that it sells in many countries is not big enough to be effective. He cites a written record of correspondence, reports and memos from the 1970s as evidence.
As a result, he argues, lives have continued to be lost around the world.
Heylings first raised the issue in January 1990, when he informed superiors that he believed the amount of emetic added to the company’s paraquat-based weedkiller, Gramoxone, was “probably well below a dose. emetic effective in humans ”. However, the company continued to present it to regulators as an effective measure.
He traces the problem back to the 1970s, when he says that a toxicologist from one of Syngenta’s predecessors, ICI, twisted data from a small-scale clinical trial to mistakenly suggest humans were 10 times more sensitive to PP796 than any of the three animal species. it has been tested on. Syngenta rejects this accusation and says the emetic level was not based on any individual’s work.
Heylings alleges that the added concentration of PP796 was and still is too low to induce immediate vomiting in most people who swallow a “minimum lethal dose” of the herbicide.
By the early 1990s, ICI had become Zeneca and Heylings had become the head of percutaneous absorption at his central laboratory, where he again expressed concern in 1995 that the emetic amount was ineffective based on l 1976 test. He did so at a time when the product was being re-registered in Europe.
A new formula in which he participated in the development was finally launched and tested in Sri Lanka in 2004, where paraquat was at the time responsible for 400 to 500 poisoning deaths each year. A study funded by Syngenta found that it improved survival rates, but authorities ultimately banned its use.
But a personal turning point for Heylings came when he learned in 2018 that Syngenta was still using what it believed to be an incorrect emetic level in the product, as poisonings continued around the world.
“Following a resumption of the matter by me, a new generation of Syngenta managers has re-established a dialogue with me on my allegation,” he told the Guardian.
First there were low-key meetings with former colleagues and current Syngenta executives, a process in which he returned in mid-2019 to the multinational’s international research center in the Berkshire village of Jealott’s Hill, where he relied on career experience to lay out his allegations. in a PowerPoint presentation.
“Unfortunately, the company continued to cover up the facts with me, claiming that they had revisited the data fabrication issue and that everything was fine. It’s for others to judge when they see the evidence, ”Heylings said.
Syngenta, a Swiss subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned company, says Heylings’ argument that increasing the level of emetic improves product safety is too simplistic, stating: “The reality is complex and public opinion modern medical and scientific support does not support Heylings’ point of view.
“Medical opinion has changed in the 30 years since Heylings first worked on this product,” a spokesperson said, adding that leading medical experts are now advising against high emetic levels due to the concerns that they may increase toxicity, while “several studies indicate a weak correlation between higher levels of added emetics and improved results in cases of deliberate ingestion.”
The company said it had engaged extensively with Heylings over the past three years and that its scientists had spent hundreds of hours reviewing his concerns and communicating with him. While working for the company, he did not raise these issues with regulators, the company said. They said that when he raised them with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), both rejected his recommendations, then he “turned to the media”.
However, the FAO response to the Guardian indicates that its decision on this matter is still “in the process of being finalized” and “will be published soon”.
The company rejected any suggestion that Syngenta and its predecessor companies had any motive in product development other than finding the most appropriate level of emetic. He pointed out that paraquat has major benefits for farmers around the world because by supporting no-till agriculture, it reduces soil erosion and increases soil nutrients and biodiversity.
“We find it heartbreaking that people have been injured by accidental or intentional ingestion of paraquat, a product that helps farmers produce food… All of Syngenta’s liquid formulations containing paraquat today include a stinking agent, which produces an odor. foul-smelling, requiring some determination consume it. In addition, all liquid formulations containing Paraquat Syngenta include a blue dye to differentiate them from drinks. Taken together, these measures ensure that paraquat cannot be easily mistaken for something else. “
Heylings is all too aware of what it means to denounce within a tight-knit scientific community in which he has always worked: “This is a pretty important step for me and my family because a lot of people who are going to be put under the law. spotlight are friends of ours, with whom we had dinner, spent Christmas.
Still, staying silent has never been an option, according to the scientist, a respected Keele University scholar who started his own business after leaving Syngenta. Paraquat deaths continue around the world, stopped only by bans in a growing list of countries. Such an initiative in South Korea in 2011 had the effect of reducing suicides by almost 10%.
But the deaths continued in the developing world, especially in the poorest Asian farming communities. A herbicide poisoning expert who conducted field research on paraquat poisonings in Sri Lanka estimated that it was responsible for “tens of thousands” of deaths worldwide.
Michael Eddleston, professor of clinical toxicology at the University of Edinburgh and an NHS consultant, considers paraquat too dangerous to be used in small-scale farming communities.
“I’ve seen hundreds of people die taking it, and one thing that really cuts them off is that it takes days to die. They are aware and you see the families standing next to them.
Her research included cases such as that of a 15-year-old girl who died after arguing with her 11-year-old brother over the use of a watch and who later told doctors she simply had grabbed the bottle of pesticide closest to the house. and drunk.
Greenpeace, which calls on the UK government to stop paraquat production and a global ban, accused Syngenta of failing to make the product safer in order to protect the company’s bottom line.
In 2019, when Heylings contacted both the US EPA and the FAO, he wrote: “I have nothing against Syngenta, I just want the next kid who accidentally takes a sip of paraquat herbicide to have a chance. survival by vomiting the poison before a fatal death. the dose is absorbed into the blood and they die of lung failure. “.
In March of last year, he was approached by a U.S. law firm that had noted his allegations in internal company memos over the years. He speaks of this as a “relief” and, in February of this year, testified as an expert witness.
“I think people will believe me. I keep saying to myself, “Am I wrong? But by turning to the media now, it’s also up to the public to decide, and for the US legal system to get to the bottom of it. “