October 10, 2007, may very well become known as “Minnesota Atrazine Day” in future years. Discussion of the widely-used herbicide started at 10 a.m. that day with Tyrone Hayes’ appearance on MPR’s Midmorning program, and it didn’t wind down until 10 p.m. at a special forum/fundraiser featuring Hayes and MPCA whistleblower Paul Wotzka. In between were a press conference and Senate hearing on atrazine and attempts by government and industry to silence its critics. A lot of excellent insights were provided on the political, environmental and economical aspects of atrazine. Dots were connected and puzzle pieces put together in a way that hopefully will create a more informed discussion of pesticide regulation and publicly-funded science in Minnesota. Perhaps one of the most troubling connections described by Professor Hayes at least three times during the course of the day had to do with the number one form of cancer in women. His description of how a pharmaceutical company is marketing a product that is supposed to treat a disease which may have some of its roots in the use of a pesticide sold by another branch of that same company would make for a heck of an ironic joke—if it wasn’t for the fact that people’s lives were at stake. Here’s the story Hayes laid out:
Studies have shown that atrazine increases aromatase expression in some human cancer lines. Aromatase is an enzyme involved in the production of estrogen. Since increased estrogen is associated with breast cancer, anything that elevates levels of aromatase is a problem as far as oncologists are concerned.
The Swiss firm Syngenta is the largest manufacturer of atrazine in the world. Who manufactures atrazine is important here because of this: In 2000, two companies called Novartis and AstraZeneca merged their agribusinesses to form Syngenta. Today, Novartis Oncology markets a drug called Femara to treat breast cancer. Femara is effective because it contains letrozole, which has been proven to block aromatase.
Atrazine increases aromatase. Femara blocks aromatase. They are manufactured by two tributaries of the same company.
Or, as Professor Hayes put it more colorfully on Wednesday: “So the company that’s giving you atrazine, which turns on your aromatase, turns around and sells you aromatase blocker and says it’s a thousand times better than other breast cancer treatments. If you’ve got breast cancer and you’re buying up their letrozole to block your aromatase, how is it going to work when 70 percent of all Americans are being exposed to atrazine? Call them up and ask them how that’s supposed to work.”
I heard from two women on Wednesday that had breast cancer and were taking letrozole. They both live in rural Minnesota and know that atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in our state’s surface water. They were livid when they heard Hayes’ description of the Syngenta-Novartis connection. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did make a phone call or two.
By the way, the numbers are toll free: 1-800-759-4500 for Syngenta; 1-888-669-6682 for Novartis.