by Liz Borkowski 

On Sunday, Marla Cone of the LA Times wrote about a federal health center contracting out the work of assessing potentially dangerous chemicals to a company with chemical-industry ties (see David Michaels’s post for reasons to be wary of this particular contractor). Her story in today’s paper shows that shining a light on such shady ties can sometimes have an effect.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group drew issue to this attention on February 28th, when it released the results of an investigation that found the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), which is part of NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), was being run by Sciences International. Contracting federal agency work out to consulting firms is a common practice, but EWG noted that Sciences International had ties to Dow Chemical Company – and that a substance manufactured by that chemical company was due for CERHR review.

The substance in question is bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical widely used in producing plastics, particularly the polycarbonate plastics used in plastic food containers, baby bottles, and food can linings. Cone explains the debate over it:

Traces [of BPA] are found in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested, and low levels – similar to amounts that can leach from infant and water bottles – mimic estrogen and have caused genetic changes in animals that lead to prostate cancer, as well as decreased testosterone, low sperm counts and signs of early female puberty, according to more than 100 government-funded studies. About a dozen industry-funded studies found no effect.

In fact, CERHR had scheduled an independent panel of 15 scientists to “review recent scientific data and reach conclusions regarding whether or not exposure to a commonly used chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA) is hazardous to human development or reproduction” from March 5 – 7, 2007. When EWG released the report of their investigation on 2/28, they also wrote to Dr. David A. Schwartz, director of toxicology at NIEHS, demanding that Sciences International disclose all of their industry ties prior to that meeting.

Today, Marla Cone reports that NIEHS has begun a review of the ties between CERHR and Sciences International. As for the BPA panel:

But on Tuesday, director Michael Shelby announced that the panel, after two days of reviewing the 372-page report that Sciences International prepared on bisphenol A, known as BPA, still had too many unresolved questions and was postponing its decision for six weeks.

If EWG and Marla Cone hadn’t drawn attention to the conflict of interest underlying an important federal-agency decision about a problematic chemical, I expect that the meeting would have gone on as planned – and Sciences International would have continued to be in charge of things that most of us would rather not leave in the hands of chemical companies or their cronies.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

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