By David Michaels

Marla Cone, in the Los Angeles Times, reports on a complaint raised by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR) is being run not by federal scientists but by a consulting firm that also works for manufacturers of chemicals CECHR is charged with evaluating.

EWG’s charges are true, but not surprising if you’ve ever worked in a federal agency. The number of government activities that are actually performed by contractors is enormous and growing rapidly. CERHR, whose mission is to provide “scientifically-based, uniform assessments of the potential for adverse effects on reproduction and development caused by agents to which humans may be exposed” is operated by Sciences International, a private consulting firm owned by Tetratech, one of the giant contracting firms.

The Los Angeles Times article focuses on an upcoming CERHR evaluation of the controversial plasticizer bisphenol A (BPA). This is a widely used chemical found in numerous independent studies to have “endocrine disrupting” effects at low doses; chemical industry-funded studies, in contrast, always find it to be harmless at these levels. According to the article, Sciences International

produces the first draft of the center’s reports on the risks of chemicals, including a new one on bisphenol A, a widely used compound in polycarbonate plastic food containers, including baby bottles, as well as lining for food cans.

The center’s work is considered important to public health because people are exposed to hundreds of chemicals that have been shown to skew the reproductive systems of newborn lab animals and could be causing similar damage in humans. Chemical companies and industry groups have staunchly opposed regulation of the compounds and have developed their own research to dispute studies by government and university scientists:

The bisphenol A report, which some scientists say has a pro-industry bias, is a public document scheduled for review by the center’s scientific panel on Monday. Employees of Sciences International involved in writing it will preside over the meeting.

EWG has questioned whether Sciences International, which has worked for numerous chemical manufacturers, can be trusted to run (and that’s what contractors do) this evaluation. It’s a great question. Sciences International is not a hack company; it employs some very respected scientists who do excellent work.

On the other hand, the company was involved in a sleazy attempt by the tobacco industry to back the EPA away from controlling exposures to a pesticide used in tobacco, and used its work for government agencies to land this contract. The episode is the subject of an important paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2005. EWG has posted a provocative letter to a tobacco industry executive from Sciences International’s founder and then President Dr. Elizabeth Anderson. The letter is a sales pitch, extolling the fact that the company “is different from most other consulting firms in that we also currently serve government agencies.” (Dr. Anderson has since left Sciences International. She is now Group Vice President of Exponent, Inc., one of the nation’s top “product defense” firms.)

The Los Angeles Times article explains that

Debate over BPA is one of the most contentious environmental health issues faced by government and industry. Traces 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 effects.

Fred vom Saal, a University of Missouri-Columbia scientist conducting NIH-funded BPA research, said the draft report written by Sciences International downplays the risks of the plastics chemical and makes critical mistakes.

“It’s a combination of inaccurate information and blatant bias as it exists in its draft form,” vom Saal said. “They specifically ignore fatal flaws in industry-sponsored publications.” He said the 300-page report misrepresented government-funded studies that found effects by inaccurately portraying their findings, and failed to note industry funding of some studies cited.

[Michael] Shelby, the center’s director, in a late February memo to the Environmental Working Group, said Sciences International reviews the scientific literature on chemicals and writes the basic reports, but that conclusions are prepared by the center’s panel of independent scientists, which “serves to minimize or eliminate any bias that might possibly be introduced by the contractor.”

Shelby wrote that there are no requirements for Sciences International or other contractors to disclose financial conflicts of interest.

When work that should be done by federal employees is given to private sector companies, the public usually gets the short end of the stick. In Iraq, private firms have been living high off of federal budget, paid too much and producing low quality work. Congressman Henry Waxman is investigating the link between recent privatization of services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the abysmal treatment provided Iraq war wounded. The examples go on and on and on.

Poor work quality aside, contractors are always thinking about where the next contract will come from. The too frequent result is that they watch out for their own interest over those of the tax-payer. That’s simply the way the world works.

Federal dollars are given to contractors who may be working for private companies that have an interest in the results. If a contractor is competing for both US and private dollars, conflict of interest is virtually inevitable.

To me, the answer is pretty clear. The federal government needs to ensure it gets the best, unconflicted science. Conflict of interest is pernicious; even when the process is fair and the outcome not influenced, the taint of conflict reduces the credibility and therefore the usefulness of the product.

UPDATE: The CERHR meeting on bisphenol A is getting quite a bit of press coverage. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an article on the dispute over its safety, and today’s Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune has a profile of Dr. vom Saal.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.