Interview with Dawn Forsythe


She is former manager of government affairs for Sandoz Agro Inc. [now Novartis AG] a pesticide manufacturer out of Des Plaines, Illinois. Forsythe was the company's sole lobbyist for the entire U.S. and headed the pesticide industry's first committee on endocrine disruption before she left Sandoz at the end of 1996.

Doug Hamilton, producer of FRONTLINE's "Fooling With Nature" interviewed her in February 1998.

Q: What is at stake for industry with this issue of endocrine disruption?

DF: Everything is at stake for the industry on this one. They thought that they had the cancer question answered -- the uproar over Rachel Carson. They have spent 20, 30 years answering those charges. This is entirely new for them. It was a day of reckoning that they didn't want to see, and everything depends on what they find out with endocrine disruption.

Q: But specifically what kinds of things are they scared of?

DF: First of all, they are afraid of things that they don't understand. All the testing that has been developed since 1960 is based on the dose-response: "the dose makes the poison." With endocrine disruption, and the effects on neonatals or development, this is something that they don't even understand. No chemical company had an endocrinologist on staff. They have toxicologists who were raised in the 1960's, 1970's, were educated then, looking for cancer end-points. So this took a long time to come to grips with it.

I can remember when it first came out and I was talking to these main scientists with the industry group. I said, "What about Fred vom Saal's inverted-U theory?" He didn't know what I was talking about. I had to draw a picture for him. This is something that Theo Colborn and Fred vom Saal have been looking at for years, and we didn't even know that it was happening.

I don't think they thought it was going to catch. So many times there is a new charge about pesticides -- pesticides and baby foods, pesticides in the water -- and I can remember the vice president for communications for an industrial group saying, "Don't worry, this is just like water off a duck's back." I don't think that they quite realized the staying power of this one issue.

Q: But what does it mean for them? Does it mean dollars? Does it mean having to change the way they do business?

DF: It definitely means dollars. When a pesticide is tested and registered, it goes through a battery of tests and the EPA then registers that pesticide for use. Now say, for instance, a new test has been developed. It might be 10, 15 years before that specific pesticide is coming around, looping through that registration process again and has to go through that test. So what the industry tries to do, especially for their big sellers, is keep that on the market as long as they can and when that test becomes due just quietly take it off the market. So it is a staying power: how many years can you squeeze into the life of this pesticide that may be a huge seller?

Q: Are you saying, they know it is bad? And they are just trying to get as much money out of the product as they can?

DF: Well, when you say they know it's "bad", that brings up another situation because EPA has a rule called the "adverse effects rule". If somebody, even the mailman in a pesticide company office, knows of an adverse effect of that pesticide, they are under legal obligation to report it to the EPA. You don't want to have to report anything bad about your own pesticide. That ruins your career within your company. So, you don't look for it. You don't test for it. You don't want to know any adverse effects of that pesticide. If you don't look for it, you don't know.

Q: So it's your opinion that with the issue of endocrine disruption, they are not looking?

DF: They haven't been. I left the industry at the end of 1996, just six months after the final congressional bill was passed [mandating that chemicals be tested for endocrine disrupting effects], and I know that everybody was all a twirl but I don't know how the industry has reacted since then.

Q: Tell me what you did in your job.

DF: I was the sole lobbyist for Sandoz Agro, which is part of the multi-national Sandoz Corporation [now Novartis]. They have ExLax, they have Gerber baby foods, but I just had the pesticide division and I was the lobbyist for all fifty states. My job was to keep track of what the state legislatures were doing, what the state departments of agriculture were doing, and just run around the country trying to put out fires.

Q: How would the industry defend itself against the environmental problems?

DF: There are a couple of different arguments that you could always rely on the pesticide industry to use. One is that there is no proven cause and effect. When you are dealing with animals, little mice that you are testing, or birds or something else, it is very hard to prove for certain that this pesticide is causing this effect in this animal. One of the other arguments that we always use- is used - is that the amount of pesticide in the -- blank -- is negligible. Now that "blank" could be in the air, water, rain, or in the breast tissue. It is all "negligible". So there are some basic arguments that you can always use and just frame it toward the specific issue.

Q Did the industry have the evidence to say this?

DF: No, they don't have any proof because they are not looking. What you do is you attack the attacker -- you try and destroy their credibility. "It's not peer reviewed," you know, "They didn't use enough frogs or mice," or whatever the situation is. So you either attack their credibility or you get somebody to speak for you. One of the major spokesmen, whether he intended to be or not, was C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General. Industry liked to bring him out a lot whenever they were under attack. He would say that pesticides help grow the food that feeds the world.

But one of the problems is that there are only so many times that you can trot out C. Everett Koop. Pretty soon you've got to find somebody else who can speak up for you.

Q: But, with this issue of endocrine disruption, you would think some of the companies would want to know about a potential threat to their product if only to avoid future liability issues. How do you explain this?

DF: You would think that they would want to know everything bad that could happen to a pesticide. But there was one case where my company was coming out with a new pesticide. One of the ideas that they had was to combine it with atrazine, to buy atrazine from another company and put it in there. Now atrazine is a corn herbicide. It's found in drinking water all over the Midwest, especially in May and June and July, and this is what first alerted me to the whole issue.

When we were thinking about combining the two chemicals, I started doing a media search and found in the Iowa paper a study that showed a link between atrazine and breast cancer. So I brought that up. Before a new product is introduced, everybody comments on it and it goes up the chain of command, all the way to Switzerland in our case. And I wrote in that paper against putting atrazine in that product because of the link with breast cancer.

Somewhere along the line, my whole section on breast cancer was dropped from the paper. I don't know if Switzerland ever saw that or knew that was an implication. I don't know where in the chain of command it was dropped. I don't know if even my CEO knew at that time that atrazine was being implicated as a causal effect in breast cancer.

Q: So, in your opinion, you talking about an industry that is under attack?

DF: Yes. First of all, they know that they are some of the most hated people on earth. You go to a neighborhood block party and someone says, "What do you do?" and you say, "Well, I work for a pesticide company." It's not the greatest thing to admit to. But they are in a bad position where they want to be viewed as responsible -- saving the world from hunger -- but on the other hand refusing to look at any new science.

It is their science or it's no science. They are so intricately involved with pesticides that who is anybody else to tell them that pesticides can react in a way that is totally unsuspected? It's hard to describe the personal attachment that many in the industry have towards the industry. They grow up as a pesticide salesman or a bench scientist and they climb up the ladder. You don't move from the pesticide industry to another industry usually. I know that our CEO started out as a salesman.

It is something that is their life, and when an issue comes up that tries to show them that their whole life may be a lie -- I would have problems with that. You have to justify it to yourself. You have to believe that you are not intentionally putting children or women or men in danger. And they are not intentionally doing it. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Q: On this issue of endocrine disruption, it's curious to me that they haven't been as aggressive in fighting it, as aggressive with their public relations, as they have been with previous issues. When you look at the industry's response to Rachel Carson, they are right out there calling her crazy. But you don't hear that this time.

DF: You hear it privately. The comments that I heard about Theo Colborn would match right up with the comments about Rachel Carson. But they are not going to say it publicly because they want to try to show the American public that they do care. The first statement that I ever saw the industry make was, "We are deeply concerned about women with breast cancer. We feel compassion for them. We will do any research, any study that is necessary to find out what is happening." I truly believed that. That was in October of 1993, I think, and by May of 1994 they were trying to defeat amendments that would require more research and more testing.

Q: But, again, the industry's response has not been blatantly aggressive....

DF: A lot of how the industry reacts is due to focus groups and surveys. They say what they think the public wants to hear. They want to reassure the public so they will have, for instance, a focus group. You would have a group of people around from so-and-so Ohio and they would say, "What do you think of pesticides?" "Oh, they are awful. They are terrible." "Well, what if we told you that you would have to eat 17 heads of lettuce every day for the rest of your life before you would get this end point. Would that make you feel any better?" "Oh yes, that would make me feel a lot better."

So what do they do? They come out and they say, "You know, you would have to eat 17 heads of lettuce for the rest of your life," not taking into consideration that this pesticide isn't only on this head of lettuce. It's in the strawberries. In Minnesota they are finding it in the rain. It's in the water. They don't bring that up. But they want to make it simple for the simple folk to understand and be reassured that we really do care.

So if they came out against Theo Colborn, nails out, fists blazing, that wouldn't fit in with their public image that they are trying to cultivate. If they say, "We care. We will look at this issue. We will study it," and then behind the scenes then try and defeat the amendments or then try and work with EPA to get their way, that works better.

Q: Do you have a specific example of what is said privately versus publicly?

DF: The industry association in October 1993 puts out a news release saying that they are ready to conduct additional tests. It's put out by Jay Vroom, the president of the association. You have, in May 1994, Jay Vroom's confidential memo to the industry, where Senator D'Amato was actually going to put in an amendment that would mandate those additional tests, and Jay says, "We will work to modify or defeat any such amendment." It is the difference between what they say publicly and what they say confidentially.

Q: What is the difference between these two things?

DF: The problem with industry is that it is either their science or it is no science.

DH: And in the end, what is the difference between those two?

Q: The difference between what they say publicly and what they say privately.

Q: When we asked the Chlorine Chemistry Council to be interviewed, they said no. We did talk to the Chemical Manufacturers Association, their parent organization. They said they were concerned about this issue and that "We are doing all we can to get to the bottom of it, and as soon as we know we will certainly act."

DF: When do you define how you know? As long as industry can keep on saying, "We need additional research, we need additional studies, we need to verify whether these tests actually tell us anything," it is the difference between the absolute, complete certainty that this product is doing this and the precautionary principle, which is: does it look like something is happening here, and if it is maybe that's a little bit more important than whether this company makes their big bucks off of agriculture.

How much research do you need before, as human beings, as a CEO, before you can say, "I don't want to subject my wife and my kids to this?" If someone's wife had breast cancer, you would think then that he would feel especially responsible for urging additional work to see if a pesticide is implicated in breast cancer.

Let's take it off the market until we find out what is going on. Why do you want to keep it on the market until you find out that it is definitely causing breast cancer, when how many women have you subjected to this? It's just very surprising to me the way that industry dollars are more important than peoples' health.

Q: However, industry also makes the point that there is a cost to taking some of these products off the market. They help produce abundant agriculture. They prevent serious diseases. So, isn't it legitimate that we have solid evidence before acting?

DF: It is legitimate, but they talk about the cost to agriculture. For a while there was a big movement on going toward safer pesticides, biological pesticides, a pesticide that only affects caterpillars. That was going on in the 1980's. In the 1990's they have found out that they weren't going to make the kind of dollars that they thought they were going to make. There wasn't that demand from conventional agriculture for safer pesticides. It is more dollars for them to keep the high cost chemicals rather than to introduce biological chemicals which they don't earn as much on.

They have an attitude that they are saving the world because with pesticides you can do high yield pesticide-intensive agriculture. This means that you can free up more of the rain forests: you don't have to slash and burn. So you are really saving the world.

In one year they spent $1.3 billion for research and development of their products. You would think that with billions of dollars for research and development that they could find out whether their chemicals were causing endocrine disruption, but they don't want to look.

Q: When the Chemical Manufacturers Association says to us that they are concerned about this issue, and are investigating, and just believe that we need more evidence, what is your opinion, your reaction to that statement?

DF: For instance, a lot of money went into a study of DDT and whether that was a contributor to breast cancer. It is really easy to study DDT because if you find out that it is a problem, no one loses any money. Because DDT is off the market. By finding out about DDT, you are not jeopardizing anybody's current products. Remember, the thing is to keep those products on the market as long as they can before they finally have to take them off, if, in fact, they are contributing to endocrine disruption.

Q: How would you define the industry's PR strategy? You've mentioned that they didn't want to push too hard because they were afraid of certain coalitions on the other side of the issue: breast cancer groups and the environmentalists.

DF: They are used to this constant battle with environmentalists. The thing that happened with endocrine disruption, however, is that you brought women's groups into the picture. When you had the women's health coalition on one side and the environmentalists on the other, you have a very strong coalition. You are talking about 52% of the population. Do you want to tick them off?

There was an article, I think it was in Good Housekeeping, that talked about it. How much more Americana can you get than Good Housekeeping? Privately, they attacked the publisher of Good Housekeeping. But publicly, what can you say? Can you attack Americana?

The coalition, and I don't even think it was a formal coalition, in New York -- especially where you had clusters of breast cancer cases on Long Island -- that wasn't the environmentalists. How do you tell somebody who has had breast cancer, "Hey it doesn't really matter." You can't be aggressive on something like that.

One company had a product that helped women stop lactating, and the FDA came out and said, "Look, we are afraid that this product may not be as good as we thought. It may have some adverse effects. Can you take it off the market?" A couple of other companies did, but this company didn't. It wasn't until, I think it was, a Tom Brokaw special came out and they were interviewing one of the women from the company. They said, "Look, women are dying. Women are going into comas with this product. Why doesn't your company take it off the market? Why are you killing people?" The response was, "Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes it is just God's will." I turned to my vice president and said, "Excuse me, is God's will the official story now?" When you are talking about devastating diseases you can't say your concerns aren't valid.

Q: In your opinion, what is the strategy behind the industry's being a little less aggressive in condemning those who are accusing them?

DF: The industry finds it hard, as anybody would, to look a woman in the eye who has had breast cancer, or who has had a lump removed, and has been through the scare of breast cancer. Do you look that woman in the eye and say, "Your concern isn't valid?" The pesticide industry cannot shirk off 52% of the population who are more concerned than ever about breast cancer. To denigrate them or to attack them or to say that "your concern isn't valid" is simply not a good PR move. You have to validate them, empathize with them, sympathize with them. That's why you won't see a big PR movement or a big effort to trivialize endocrine disruption.

Q: There were wildlife biologists who worked for industry. They came together to write a paper looking at the state of the evidence on this issue of endocrine disruption. What happened to that effort?

DF: They went through a couple of drafts. The industry association looked at it for a while and said, "You can't call it 'endocrine disruption'. You ought to call it 'endocrine modulation', because 'disruption' has negative connotations." I saw the paper that they did. It was thorough. It was responsible. And then I never saw it again.

Q: Was it stopped?

DF: I have no idea. I just know that on the questions about whether our testing is sufficient for endocrine disruption, industry didn't come forward and say, "Look, we've identified some gaps and we've identified ways to test for that knowledge."

Q: The biologists wrote a paper saying they had some concerns about the testing?

DF: I think they went beyond concerns. I think they said that there are endocrine end-points that our testing does not address. A draft position paper, put together by wildlife biologists who work for the various pesticide companies, states that there is convincing scientific evidence that some organic chemicals -- including pesticides -- have caused reproductive effects. They then go on to say that in their testing, in this battery of tests, there isn't any specific test that addresses endocrine disruption

Q One industry group's stated goal is to "demoralize the anti-pesticide groups".

DF: The pesticide industry has an unlimited amount of money, scientists that are working around the clock and multinational industries that they can call on. The environmental organizations don't have those kinds of resources. So, the industry wants to demoralize environmental groups. So you figure if you keep spending money and if you keep wining and dining government officials, pretty soon the environmentalists will be demoralized.

The industry spends a lot of money entertaining state officials. I remember we spent $10,000 to take industry officials on a cruise off of West Palm Beach. We entertained them all over the country. The industry has those resources where they can become very friendly with the regulators. Where the environmentalists usually can't even afford to go to the meetings because it's $225 for registration. Pretty soon they just hope that the environmentalists will run out of money or will run out of guts and will just go home.

Q: When they talked about demoralizing anti-pesticide groups, did they mean the breast cancer coalition?

DF: In New York, the industry felt that the environmentalists were simply using the breast cancer activists. That if the breast cancer activists realized that pesticides don't cause breast cancer, pesticides aren't endocrine disrupters, that they would focus elsewhere. So even though it was the breast cancer activists who were saying, "We want this legislation," the industry knew that the environmentalists were behind that one. I don't think that they were even looking seriously at the women who were involved.

Q: What does it mean for industry that Al D'Amato (R-NY) took on this issue?

DF: Industry has many friends within the Republican party. Their usual enemies were Senator Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman Waxman (D-CA). For D'Amato to pipe up, it's political: the women who have breast cancer on Long Island. D'Amato's got to do this. That was sort of a new tact that they had to look at. Remember back in '94 when the Republicans took over? There was absolute joy in the pesticide industry, knowing that the Republicans, the conservatives, were going to control Congress.

Q: But they must have been shocked that a potentially strong, new regulation got through this conservative, anti-regulation, Republican-controlled Congress?

DF: They couldn't believe it when the Food Quality Protection Act passed the House unanimously, passed the Senate unanimously. What happened to their friends? What happened to all that political money: the campaign contributions, the soft money? Years of contributing to Republicans and a couple of Democrats from agricultural states? Their friends voted against them. The industry was reeling.

Q: How did the bill get through?

DF: The industry didn't know how it got through. One of the industry's biggest supporters was Congressman Bliley (R-VA). Congressman Bliley is also a tobacco guy. The rumors were rampant in the industry. Maybe Bliley traded off with Waxman: Waxman would lay off tobacco if Bliley would vote against pesticides. Why does somebody who's been supported their whole career by an industry just --(Finger snap)-- like that, vote against them? On one of the most far-reaching, all-encompassing bills that the industry's had to face? Who knows what goes on in Washington.

Q: What is industry most concerned about in your opinion?

DF: The basic concern is that they're going to find pesticides that are endocrine disrupters, eventually, and they're going to have to take them off the market.

Q: Explain to somebody who doesn't know anything about the chemical industry how much is at stake here.

DF: In all of the world, with the billions of pounds of pesticides that are going on the ground, there are basically eleven major companies. Maybe it'd be twenty-four if you count the little guys. They're the Dows, the DuPonts, the Monsantos. Novartis is a combination of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy.

When all of that industry is concentrated so closely, when you lose a class of pesticides, you've wiped out a company. If something is found wrong with one pesticide, it could wipe out an entire company. If they lose a pesticide, they lose their market.

Q: So what do you think industry is doing while all of this is going on?

DF: Based on how I've seen industry handle prior challenges, the tactic is to delay. There is a process called "re-registration" where, since 1988, EPA was supposed to be looking at every pesticide, re-testing it, seeing what it's health effects are. Here it is 1998, and they still haven't gotten through all the pesticides.

If you can hold off that testing for endocrine disruption, you've got another couple of decades before your pesticide is potentially subjected to those tests. So I would imagine that right now their tactic is to speak words of comfort, and then to use everything within their power to delay.

Q: As somebody who has worked with a variety of scientific issues in industry, do you see this as a scientific debate?

DF: When I first came to the industry, I saw too much skirting around the question. When you say, "Why don't you look specifically at this?" it's either "we don't have to", "we don't need to", or, "it would cost too much money". So, no. I didn't see the science done. I saw trained toxicologists looking at the regulatory question and strictly answering that regulatory question.

They're not looking for answers. They're not looking for knowledge. They're looking to answer EPA's requirements.

Q: So you are saying, if it's not in the law, they're not going to find it?

DF: If it's not in the law, they're not going to look for it.

Q: Did you see others in industry working to manipulate the science?

DF: I don't pretend to understand why, test results are thrown away. Set aside. Explained by another factor. You don't have anybody replicating the results. You basically take that company's word for it. There's been some cases in the past where laboratories have faked the results. EPA's had to come in and find them. You had to figure out what pesticides they were testing, and that the results were faked.

Q: Would industry try to find scientists who would support its particular point of view?

DF: There's a whole industry for finding scientists out there. Supporting university researchers. Stephen Safe, from Texas, used to be one of pesticides' harshest critics. Suddenly he turned around and he was one of the industry's firmest supporters. When some congressional committees were looking at inviting some industry witnesses, they were asked the question of whether Stephen Safe received industry funding. They obviously felt that it wouldn't serve justice to have him testify.

The industry does fund different scientific research papers. I would never see the industry helping to fund Fred vom Saal. You have to find somebody who wants to prove your case.

Q: In the presentation you saw by the Chlorine Chemistry Council, what was their approach?

DF: Our pesticides go through a lot of testing, unlike many of the other chemicals that are out there. The chlorine industry, this was a new area for them. But they were on to endocrine disruption before the pesticide industry was.

The state lobbyist for the pesticide industry invited one of the lobbyists from the Chlorine Chemistry Council to come in and share what they were doing. What he basically told us was that the Chlorine Chemistry Council was putting together a campaign and the message was "benefits". They weren't even going to engage in a discussion on these effects or that testing. Just show the American people the benefits of chlorine.

Q: What was the reaction in your company, in your circles, to Theo Colborn and her book?

DF: The reaction to Theo Colborn's book was amazing. The industry somehow got an advance copy of the manuscript. The industry got it and spread it through all of the companies. We all read it before it was released. There were, however, some industry people -- my colleague from DuPont for instance -- who wouldn't buy the book. Who wouldn't read it. And so wouldn't even explore the possibilities.

When Theo's book first came out, industry immediately got together and formed a cohesive strategy on how to deal with that. Part of it was looking for journalists who would take the pesticide industry's point of view. They were hiring firms to track Theo, to be in the audience when she was speaking to environmental groups, to report back to industry what was being said. They took Theo's book seriously: more seriously than I've ever seen any issue since Rachel Carson.

My CEO, the day that the book came out, had me go and find twenty copies. We sent copies to Japan, to Switzerland, all over the world so that our colleagues within Sandoz would know what Theo was saying. We put out a position paper where our head scientist said, "There might be something to this, there might not. But we have to take a look at it." Unfortunately, that position wasn't adopted by the industry.

Q: But the industry did not attack her in a really vicious way.

DF: No. Theo is not an attackable person. You can attack a CEO of a tobacco company. You know he's lying. But Theo is gracious. She doesn't rant and rave and accuse people of unspeakable acts. How do you attack somebody who's reasoned in their approach? Remember, this is all for the public. This is all political. Anything goes politically, PR-wise. Just look like you're being reasonable.

Q: What was the bottom line for them on this book?

DF: The bottom line for this book is that, since 1960, they've been testing their pesticides wrong. Again, it comes down to the money: what will it mean to their profits? I was never involved in a discussion on what it meant to their daughters, or what it meant to their grandchildren. It was what did it mean for those products.

Since the 1960s, they have been working off of the cancer question, where "the dose makes the poison". They've been assuming that people have to receive massive doses, or at least doses lasting a lifetime, before cancer forms.

Theo's book is saying that a small amount, at the right time, can cause an effect. It destroys their scientific basis for testing. And if they don't have a scientific basis for testing, then those products are vulnerable on the market. Companies could fail if their product is an endocrine disrupter.

Q: Do you think there was an element of your experience with the industry that came down to your being a woman?

DF: The pesticide industry is very male. Whenever I would raise the argument that maybe there is something to endocrine disruption, I was called an eco-feminist terrorist. I was told that I was too emotional -- that I was letting the emotions of breast cancer carry me away. There is a very pronounced male-female tension in the industry on this issue.

Q: Was there a moment of reckoning for you?

DF: I can't say when the exact moment came when I knew I'd have to leave the industry. Maybe it was just the gradual realization that what they wanted me to say was a lie.

When you went to school back in the sixties and seventies, didn't we all have this image that we wanted to help save the world? And here I was in my position as a lobbyist for the pesticide company, saying things that I couldn't believe in and that I couldn't say anymore. I almost felt like a werewolf. When that transformation came, I can't say, but I just went home and told my husband I couldn't do it anymore.

When EPA and EDSTAC finally came to sitting down and really examining the issue and saying, "Is this right? Are you telling the truth or are you lying?" there is no way that I could sit there and listen to industry give a story that I felt was not complete, at a time in history when everything was riding on what the answers would be. My heart and my guts are behind Theo and behind Fred vom Saal. I know that I couldn't be representing industry now, knowing how they're scheming and strategizing against doing it.

 

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