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Syngenta v. scientist
Chemical giant demands private files of neurology expert over journal article about link between paraquat and Parkinson's disease.
Six months ago neurologist Dr. E. Ray Dorsey and a colleague authored an article titled “Paraquat, Parkinson’s Disease and Agnotology,” which spotlighted secrets unearthed from within the corporate files of paraquat maker Syngenta AG. The article was published March 6, 2023, in Movement Disorders, the official journal of the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society.
In the article, Dorsey and co-author neurologist Dr. Amit Ray pointed to stories I wrote for The New Lede and The Guardian that were based upon thousands of pages of the company’s internal documents dating back to the 1950s. Those files revealed many corporate secrets related to paraquat safety and the weed killer’s potential connection to the dreaded, incurable brain disease known as Parkinson’s.
“Knowledge of the toxic effects of paraquat is alleged to have been hidden for decades,” Dorsey’s article stated. “All the while, the manufacturer continues to maintain that paraquat does not cause Parkinson's disease. Actions like these should be recognized for what they are: attacks on science, attacks on scientists, and attacks on the health of the public.”
“This report and the company's own findings now indicate that we know what one cause of Parkinson's disease is—paraquat,” the article stated. “With this conclusion, paraquat should be banned, and the search for other causative factors in the environment should accelerate.”
The statements published in the article did not sit well with Syngenta, to put it mildly.
Syngenta has spent the last few months engaging in what Dorsey’s defenders say is the latest effort in a history of chemical industry actions to harass, or otherwise smear, scientists whose work threatens corporate interests.
Since the article’s publication, Syngenta has been demanding that Dorsey turn over his private files - emails, notes, article drafts, and other records. The company is publicly accusing Dorsey of publishing his article not as a sincere scientific commentary, but as part of a conspiracy to engineer evidence that could be used by plaintiffs in sweeping, nationwide litigation brought by people alleging they developed Parkinson’s because of exposure to Syngenta’s paraquat herbicide.
After Dorsey balked at Syngenta’s demands, citing the fact that he has no connection to the litigation, the company last month asked a federal judge to force Dorsey to turn over his files.
Among a long list of document demands, Syngenta has subpoenaed:
All documents and communications related to the Movements Disorder article.
All Documents “relating to and copies of any literature authored in whole or in part” by Dorsey relating to paraquat.
All documents relating to “any association” between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease.
Dorsey is fighting the subpoena, saying the company’s demand is improper and that, if granted, would have a “chilling effect” on other scientists who may be considering publishing scientific opinions that run afoul of corporate approval.
“Syngenta should not be permitted to place Dr. Dorsey on trial and pick apart his thought process and communications…” Dorsey’s lawyers state in an Aug. 30 court filing. “Compelling discovery of his internal drafts, preliminary analyses and opinions, and peer review would chill the crucial atmosphere of candor and seriously damage the ability of researchers to conduct their studies in an uninhibited manner. Further it would discourage participation in research by those who may fear the potential for embarrassment.”
The irony with the situation is obvious. Syngenta’s files show that the company has spent many long years working to manipulate what the science says about whether or not paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease, even setting up what the company called a “SWAT Team” to address unfavorable scientific findings about paraquat.
Now the company alleges that lawyers representing people with Parkinson’s disease are trying to manipulate what is said in scientific circles as they prepare to put Syngenta on trial. The multidistrict litigation (MDL) so far involves over 4,600 plaintiffs.
Syngenta “believes that lawyers representing plaintiffs have been involved with, and perhaps even encouraged, Dr. Dorsey to write [the article] so that plaintiffs can cite it in the litigation,” Syngenta’s lawyers state in their court filing. “If that is true, then Syngenta is plainly entitled to demonstrate… that the science that MDL Plaintiffs intend to rely upon was influenced by plaintiffs’ counsel - particularly given that MDL Plaintiffs intend to argue that it was Syngenta that was seeking in influence scientists.”
Syngenta is also asking for Dorsey to turn over any communications he’s had with me and others involved in the stories published in The Guardian and The New Lede. (They’ll be sorely disappointed if and when they succeed. Sorry, Syngenta. No conspiracy here.)
It all adds up to one more level of drama in a now years-long legal battle over the alleged harms of paraquat. From where I sit on the sidelines, the debate over the state of the science remains unsettled.
But there is no room for debate over the company’s conduct.
Syngenta files show that insiders feared they could face legal liability for long-term, chronic effects of paraquat as long ago as 1975. One company scientist called the situation “a quite terrible problem,” for which “some plan could be made….”
Rather than share concerns with regulators and the public, Syngenta deployed a range of tactics designed to quash any public concerns, including enlisting a prominent UK scientist and other outside researchers who authored scientific literature without disclosing their involvement with Syngenta; misleading regulators about the existence of unfavorable research; and engaging lawyers to review and suggest edits for scientific reports in ways that downplayed worrisome findings.
A key goal, the company stated, was to “create an international scientific consensus against the hypothesis that paraquat is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.”
Syngenta’s records also show the company secretly worked to keep a highly regarded scientist from sitting on an advisory panel for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - while making sure the efforts could not be traced back to Syngenta.
Syngenta has so far been reluctant to spend much time addressing the corporate conduct laid out in its internal files. The action against Dorsey shows the company is eager, however, to throw stones at those who publicize what those files reveal. And those stones could very well be intimidating enough to limit the willingness of other scientists to weigh in on this, and other, controversial matters.
I’ll be watching to see how the judge in the case rules. And so should everyone who cares about the integrity of science.