By Grant Jacobs 01/12/2019 3


1080 is used to control pests in NZ. Its use is contested by a noisy few. A new report claims high levels of 1080 in rats washed up on a beach. Flora and Fauna of Aotearoa (F&F) won’t name the laboratory that did their testing. It has sparked a hunt for the mystery 1080 testing lab. It’s just the sort of thing my readers might spend some idle time on Sunday searching for clues. Whodunnit?

Readers can tackle Farah Hancock’s and Dave Hansford’s coverage (published in that order), and the Science Media Centre’s Expert Reaction report for background. You can also read the report itself (PDF file; obtained from a link in the SMC Expert Reaction report). Let us know what you think!

F&F spokeswoman Di Maxwell claimed to Dave Hansford their tester previously recieved a “bullet in the mail” and “vandalism”. There’s a media story about a previous chemical “testing” incident reporting the tester making the same claim. Let’s call that person Dr. Y. Dr. Y’s earlier case, like the recent one, is associated with environmental groups, and claims excessively high levels of a substance. Investigations at the time met a refusal to share the methods used, and the laboratory – similar to what F&F are doing now.

(Riddling out what’s going on for yourself is the idea. Don’t bother the guy. But where is the laboratory?)

My lead is speculative, with all that goes with that. It could be completely off. Rather than expand on it, I’d like to close this piece by drawing attention to how these “science-y” presentations affect issues and invite ideas as how to move groups past this. They’re an odd form of showmanship that really isn’t helpful.

But first let’s run back over the story so far a little. It’s quite a tale.

Where, who and what

On North Beach near Westport on the West Coast of the South Island 680 animals were found dead. Tests by Landcare NZ found no 1080 residues in the rats, and examination of the bodies by Massey University haven’t identified a cause of death.

F&F published what they claim are laboratory tests showing animals from the beach have enormous amounts of 1080 residue in them. To scientists, however, their document raises more questions than answers.

F&F heavily promote that their lab is accredited, but toxicologists say the chemistry doesn’t add up. Cridge and Shaw (SMC report) note stomach tissue is not expected to have high levels of fluorocitrate.

Dave Hansford concluded, “the question being asked in the profession is whether the mystery report is anything more than a work of lurid fiction”.

F&F spokeswoman Maxwell said to Hansford that the tester, “[…] had his house vandalised, he had a bullet through the mail. I could go on and on.”

How many claims of a bullet in the mail and vandalism to someone (claiming to) work at a chemical testing laboratory in work linked to environmental groups are there in New Zealand?

You’d think there wouldn’t be many. Perhaps only one.

It’s easy to find a media account of one case. (Tip: you can limit Google search results to NZ sites by adding ‘site:.nz’.) For your whodunnit, however, there are a few catches.

Many small consistencies and parallels make Dr. Y an appealing candidate to be F&F’s tester, but other claims by F&F don’t match – at least on the face of it.

Hiding the laboratory

F&F say they outsourced to a large (3,000m2!) laboratory, with overseas sites and other details (2 links). Where is the laboratory? There are only a small number of labs approved for fluoracetate testing in NZ. (As for the Dr. Y option, as far as I know he never revealed his lab. Perhaps Sherlock would suggest keeping embellishment open as a possibility?)

Maxwell says she must hide the laboratory, “for the security and safety of the independent chemists involved”. F&F claim, “This is a whistleblower situation” and that, “They have been attacked for standing up before” (as Dr. Y’s claims).

The real question, I believe, is if they need protection for this event. I’m doubtful. It’s a bit hard to see where there is an axe to grind.

Online consensus seems to be this event is nature at work after a big storm. Rats drowning (perhaps especially those that live by riverbanks or in otherwise dry river beds), and some sea-life washing ashore. West Coast rivers in flood are an impressive sight. Nearby is Cape Foulwind, not named by accident. Fans of Occam’s Razor would suggest it’s the simpler and hence more likely idea. (But that’s not enough on it’s own.)

Besides, as Hansford wrote,

You’d think a laboratory that had succeeded where Landcare and Massey had allegedly failed might be keen to burnish its reputation in a competitive field, but no: despite persistent requests, F&F refused to divulge its identity “for the security and safety of the independent chemists involved”, and warned that anyone who asked for it would be summarily removed from its Facebook page.

This reads as the over-played thinking and heavy-handed control seen by groups opposed to “contested” topics on social media.

Getting lobbies to do better

Using the language of science dubious claims can be pushed as issues needing attention. This game of ‘scientific bluff’ can be a kind of showmanship that is deeply unhelpful.

I’ve seen this game of imitating science elsewhere, on other issues. For example, there are commissioned studies of vaccines and genetic modification that look—to be very kind—a mess.

These reports don’t convince scientists working in the field, but they can affect politics. They also force a need to “tear down” the facade of “science-y” claims erected. Aside from the effort that takes, I suspect addressing the claims leaves the lobbies feeling beseiged, even it’s ultimately at their own hand, and they then dig in.

Those opposed might well mean their efforts sincerely, within their limitations. It might stem in part from a mistrust of the institutions. F&F’s Facebook posts show elements of this.

How do we ask lobbies to lift their game and not play at this sort of thing? Do we, even?

Where the issue is properly not a science issue—as in many objections to GMOs are, for example—encouraging people to talk in terms of their non-science objections may help. In not giving ‘value’ issues space, perhaps it’s inevitable there’s more science-bluff? People perceive they’re heard if they make it “scientific”.

But what do you do when the issue is squarely a science one? I’m not sure I know the answer.

Perhaps we could offer visitor passes to witness the testing? The idea being that it might it might reassure them of the professionalism and care that the testing is done with. I can’t see this working for F&F if the tone of their Facebook posts are representative, but maybe for other groups.

Ideas welcome – the comments are open.

Other articles in Code for life

Political parties and GMOs: we all need to move on

1000 of these now

Not cow farts

For new parents or parents-to-be facing vaccine opinions

Scientific paper has a face in a turd. Who could it be?

Footnotes

As I write F&F are pushing more out. By withholding details needed to resolve their claims, they can rark them up. You’d wish they’d realise how insincere that looks to others, and the extent to which that lowers the judgement of their tests. (You’d also wish they’d see they’d do better by working with people rather than be combative. Humans are a mess sometimes.)

On their Facebook page F&F are both claiming there is a laboratory, but at the same time not saying what it is. Obviously that doesn’t engender confidence in their claim. Similarly unconvincing is F&F’s selective quoting of Shaw’s questions about DoC testing that leaves out his must stronger criticism of their own testing. Likewise, claiming to “want an open and transparent dialogue about the Government poison testing policies”, but not providing the same of their own testing doesn’t look equitable.

There’s more, but I’ll leave you to it!


I’m available (internationally) for writing on biological topics, particularly those related to genetics and molecular biology such as gene editing, GMOs, gene therapy.

Featured image

Description

“A defaced roadside sign between Inchbonnie and Jacksons in the South Island of New Zealand. The sign reads “The Lake Brunner Road The Heritage Highways” and is defaced with the message “DOC Kills Wild Life STOP 1080. It is in reference to the use of sodium fluoroacetate to kill the invasive, introduced possums which create problems for agriculture and biodiversity.”

Artist: Alan Liefting. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (Cropped from original.)


3 Responses to “Whodunnit? Finding the mystery 1080 testing lab”

  • It has been suggested* that this is the method being used,

    https://www.nature.com/articles/srep09736
    (Interfacing low-energy SAW nebulization with Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry for the analysis of biological samples, Tveen-Jensen, et al. Scientific Reports 5: 9736 (2015); senior author Andrew R. Pitt)

    Any comments on the technique are welcome. In particular, when applied to organofluorines (as opposed to proteins or peptides; the paper presents it as a technique for proteomics).

    It would be better that full information were available rather than this game of “hide the laboratory”. Just my humble opinion, but it’s all rather silly, and unhelpful to everyone. It certainly doesn’t make F&FA look credible to others.

    Going from what I’ve seen on social media, I’m wondering if the main “play” here, even if not consciously intended, is to members of the group (F&FA).

    Any F&FA members reading this might like to consider that F&FA leaders are using the reactions to claim that they’re being “opposed” or “others are being dumb”—playing to you, not the tests themselves. Really, it’s that by deliberately withholding information needed to make sense of the (claimed) testing, F&FA are forcing people to hunt for it (and they have to consider it’s exaggerated or dubious in that mix because of the bizarre way it’s being withheld).

    There’s an old in-group/out-group game along these lines. Leaders set users up to spread some message they know will get push-back. Members run back to the group, telling others how they where pushed back. It’s a way of setting up a group as a “safe place”, strengthening people’s attachment to the group. The “win” for the group isn’t in the message, it’s in binding existing members to the group tighter.

    The ‘trick’ is to critique the message yourself. Think about had you’d feel if you were presented with the counterpart.

    ———
    *From Twitter: https://twitter.com/hilarymcam/status/1199554669401370624

  • There’s further coverage of this, suggesting Nick Wall as a candidate for being the tester:

    https://thespinoff.co.nz/science/02-12-2019/the-dead-rats-of-westport-and-the-mystery-lab-a-new-twist-in-the-tail/

    If you tried searching based on Di Maxwell’s comments about the tester, as I suggested in my post, you’d (easily) run into the previous media accounts that Dave Hansford recaps in his article.

    Now this is out publicly, I could probably post my original take on the story (written ~3 days ago), but I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort or not. (I alerted Dave Hansford of my article before his when to print, but I’d imagine he’d have already made his own way to the connection, it’s not especially hard to find if you look.) There are other details I’ve seen from exploring what’s out there.

    Either way, and more relevant for the core issue, we really need to see details of the work done. Results from scientific work are interpreted from the details of the method used. Without the details of the method (sample preparation, processing, etc.), the results are effectively anecdotes. The results from the two labs are wildly at odds with each other, and as others have pointed out the F&FA report contains findings that are ‘unexpected’. These can only be resolved by examining what was done in detail.

    If F&FA can’t be straight-forward about this then I think it’s fair to call shenanigans.