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A rat that is not dead. Posed by model. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
A rat that is not dead. Posed by model. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

ScienceNovember 30, 2019

Dead rats, a mystery lab, and the very curious antics of the anti-1080 lobby

A rat that is not dead. Posed by model. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
A rat that is not dead. Posed by model. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The anti-1080 lobby last week released ‘lab tests’ purporting to find the poison in the vermin that washed up in Westport. But do their claims stand up to scrutiny, asks Dave Hansford.

For the anti-1080 movement, it was supposed to be the turning of a rather putrid tide. On November 15, Flora and Fauna of Aotearoa (F&F), an anti-1080 group, announced it had commissioned “independent” lab analysis of three rats, two seabirds, a starfish, a weka and six mussels – rotten carcasses collected from the mysterious Westport die-off, in which 680 were found dead, a week earlier. “Independent tests of samples collected by volunteers from the area confirm the presence of substances that indicate the deaths were almost certainly caused by 1080 poison,” touted F&F’s press release.

The claim directly contradicted the findings of Landcare Research, which had tested carcasses from North Beach for 1080 and found none. (In necropsies, Massey University was unable to establish a cause of death).

On November 22, F&F dropped their bombshell; a 41-page report, conducted by an “independent laboratory”, which found truly astronomical concentrations of 1080, and its toxic metabolite, fluorocitrate, in the tissues of everything except one rat and the mussels. The fold was ecstatic: “Thank you for helping to share the truth behind the cover ups & out right [sic] lies. Stop all drops now & Ban 1080!” read a comment on the group’s triumphant Facebook post. “Amazing work. Congratulations to everyone involved in a tight and uncontestable bit of forensic science. This also puts into doubt every single past case of DOC testing for 1080 after death and not finding it,” said another.

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.

“I can tell you that pro-1080s are much more vitriolic than us,” said Flora and Fauna Aotearoa spokeperson Di Maxwell, who appeared to be referring to an individual, rather than an organisation. “He’s gone through the same issues as we have, in the past, with another group. He’s had his tyres slashed, he’s had his computer stolen, he had his house vandalised, he had a bullet through the mail. I could go on and on.”

Sceptical eyebrows raised, and remained so for the ensuing days, as the revelation began to smell – like North Beach itself – of rats. People noted, after quick Google image searches, that the lab submission forms in the F&F report were identical to those readily downloadable from the website of Virginia Tech, a US diagnostic laboratory – Virginia Tech’s letterhead had simply been erased (Virginia Tech did not reply to email inquiries).

They noted that the results had been written by hand, when residue analysis is a highly digital process. Toxicologists were perplexed by ham-fisted reporting protocols from a lab, we were assured, was certified to ISO9001 standards. (Maxwell denies she ever claimed that level of certification for the mystery lab. The claim is however, made in a footnote on the lab report – “Accredited with ISO9001; 17025; 27000 QMS”.)

Suspicion turned to disbelief when toxicologists pointed out that, somehow, this lab had managed to develop testing protocols for five different species – three of which have never before been tested for 1080 – and to conduct tests on 15 samples, then write the report in just two days. This is at best a week-long process, they say, and often longer. Nor did the lab provide a standard diagnostic double-check: the results from duplicate, and sometimes triplicate, tests. (An anonymous spokesperson later told Newsroom that those additional tests had indeed been done, but in the interests of brevity, those papers had been left out of the report, and an average residue score applied to the samples.)

Right about here, the story slipped into farce. The mystery lab had not only found 1080, they’d found it in spades: the LD50 – the measure of a poison dose sufficient to kill half of your study sample – in adult rats is around 1.2 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg). The North Beach rats had apparently scoffed the mother lode: one allegedly contained 38 mg/kg. Two shearwaters, birds that range far out to sea, had evidently found 1080 out there, or at least scavenged rats that contained it.

The starfish had somehow imbibed 13 mg/kg of 1080 while underwater.

Then F&F went, literally, for the high score. 1080 itself doesn’t kill an animal, but when it eats some, the animal’s own cells metabolise that 1080 and convert it into fluorocitrate, and that’s the toxic agent that goes about disrupting cell processes in organs of high energy demand. But not all the 1080 an animal eats is converted, so that fluorocitrate values in a lab test should normally be lower than the concentration of 1080 itself. Not so at the mystery lab, which reported fluorocitrate values from the stratosphere – 415 mg/kg in the rat that ate 38 mg/kg of 1080. “Is there an additional error in the reporting of the fluorocitrate results? These are presented as being higher than the fluoroacetate levels which is not expected,” ventured University of Otago toxicologist Dr Belinda Cridge, with commendable restraint.

At that dose, the rat would’ve died very quickly – far too quickly, say toxicologists, who know the rate at which fluorocitrate metabolises – for that sort of concentration to have been converted.

Furthermore, the report claims to have followed the “Pitt” testing protocol, a procedure no toxicologists I spoke to had ever heard of. Nor had Cridge. And here, on the last page of the “report”, is a photo of a rat, presumably prepared for necropsy: it’s pinned out on a sheet of newspaper. Not very ISO9001.

For a day, I tried to raise these issues with F&F through its Facebook page. I also asked for the Chain of Custody and Standard Operating Procedures the press release promised were available on request. Maxwell refused them all, demanding instead to see my “press credentials.” F&F was oblivious, too, to other quizzical enquiries from the Facebook community – one from a sharp-eyed reader who noticed that F&F had actually declared the results of the tests on November 15 – three days before the “lab” was supposed to have completed them.

Having issued the press release, F&F was now puzzlingly reluctant to engage with media. Finally, under relentless enquiry, they agreed to a proposition from Newsroom to interview someone from the mystery lab under condition of anonymity.

Now, things went from bizarre to hallucinogenic. Under a deal brokered by an F&F go-between, Ursula Edgington, Newsroom journalist Farah Hancock got a call from someone purporting to be a lab worker. Despite the caller spelling out the name of the lab for Hancock, it was invisible on the internet. Neither could Hancock find it in the New Zealand companies register, nor on a list of International Accreditation New Zealand-certified companies. When Hancock mentioned that Landcare appeared to be one of the only labs in New Zealand with the equipment necessary for testing 1080, the mystery caller insisted they’d purchased “standards” from supplier Sigma Aldrich to test against.

But Gavin Robertson, head of marketing and commercial services at Sigma Aldrich, told me: “The sale of standards for the compounds fluoroacetate and fluorocitrate have been discontinued on since at least 2015.”

When I asked Maxwell about the lab’s identity, she said: “If anyone’s doing any investigation, they need to look further than New Zealand. New Zealand’s not the only country in the world.” I then asked if she was suggesting she’d sent the samples overseas. “I’m not telling you where the samples went. I’m not telling you anything about it.”

However, she later added that “It’s an international lab. It’s got a series of labs.”

When I asked her about the provenance of the Virginia Tech lab submission forms, she said: “Are you saying that Virginia Tech is not legitimate? I’m surprised people haven’t drawn their own conclusions.”

On November 25th, Di Maxwell announced on Facebook that the lab results would be verified by “a credible person by Thursday”. F&F had previously claimed that person would be Professor Ian Shaw, of Canterbury University, who has previously offered scientific advice to anti-1080 activists Clyde Graf and Sue Grey, notably over the alleged poisoning of a Putaruru family by 1080. Shaw also spoke at an F&F conference in April.

But on the 27th, Shaw appeared to publicly dissociate himself from the group, in a statement on the Science Media Centre website: “I agreed to comment on the laboratory’s credentials if Flora and Fauna Aotearoa told me the name of the lab, but they did not. I have no knowledge whatsoever of the laboratory that did the work and thus cannot comment on their expertise.”

Maxwell, however, insists she did disclose the lab’s name to Shaw: “Of course I would tell him. We had an arrangement. I did reveal it to him on the phone, but I wouldn’t reveal it over e-mail because of the possibility of an OIA.”

Shaw did critique the mystery report, but his comments weren’t what F&F were hoping for. He expressed doubt over the presence of fluorocitrate in the tissues examined, before concluding that: “Until we know the identity and credentials of the second laboratory, we can only rely on the Landcare results, in my opinion.”

Maxwell said her biggest regret was “That we perhaps should have used another lab that had not been exposed to these shocking vitriolic attacks before, and made people scared. And in future, we’ll be using overseas labs.”

There are, of course, a raft of international biosecurity laws, as well as CITES, a convention on the trade of endangered species – alive or dead – that would prevent that.

What exactly happened here? Flora and Fauna Aotearoa has released a “lab report” that, by any standard test of credence, appears bogus, presumably in a bid to undermine the case for 1080. The report carries text – qualifications, statements of responsibility, claims of accreditation – that was either plagiarised from other documents, or written by someone who knows about toxicological testing. The use of forms appropriated from a US lab suggests an intent to obscure any paper trail. The handwritten entries were a precaution, presumably, against leaving any electronic forensic evidence.

Maxwell has exhorted Facebook followers to donate money “so we can carry out even more research”. The website of F&F similarly asks for donations, and helpfully posts a bank account number right there on its home page. If an incorporated society were found to have falsified documentation with a view to soliciting donations, Section 256 of the Crimes Act 1961 would take a dim view.

Maxwell is absolutely emphatic on the question of authenticity. “Definitely not,” she said when asked if the report might not be as claimed. “What do you achieve by lying? I wish DOC and Forest and Bird would believe that, too.”

I asked Maxwell what she hoped the release of this report would achieve. “Who knows? I’ve had police interrogations in the past. I’ve been abused, I’ve been insulted verbally and online. I’ve had my family threatened. I’ve been run at with a car. I wouldn’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. I could have bullets through the mail, like the lab guys have. But I’m not going to be bullied into stopping. I just wish that people would stop to think about the animals, who have feelings. And stop telling lies.”

For the F&F account to be true, we must accept some remarkable propositions. First, that Landcare Research and Massey University were either involved in some shadowy government conspiracy to conceal the truth about the Westport die-offs, and that their staff were complicit and corrupt. “I believe they were instructed, and they did what they were told to do,” Maxwell told me.

We also have to accept that critical thinkers present such a threat to the personal safety of the “mystery lab” that we can never expect to see its findings verified.

Finally, we have to accept that the country’s legitimate toxicologists and science agencies are plain wrong when they insist that Landcare Research is in fact, the only laboratory in New Zealand accredited, and equipped, that routinely tests for the presence of fluoroacetate. And that to test for it, you have to keep to some 1080 in your lab yourself, and it’s a highly restricted substance. Any other lab without the necessary handling accreditation would find it impossible to procure.

“The results that were published contain several very unusual findings which are in direct conflict with all published studies to date,” observed Belinda Cridge. She was being polite: having spoken to a number of real toxicologists for this story, the question being asked in the profession is whether the mystery report is anything more than a work of lurid fiction.

Read part 2:

The dead rats of Westport and the mystery lab: a new twist in the tail

Keep going!