2007 Latest News
Public health agency linked to chemical industry
The work of a federal risk-assessment center is guided by a
company with manufacturing ties. Some scientists see bias.
By Marla Cone, Times Staff Writer
March 4, 2007
For nearly a decade, a federal agency has been responsible for
assessing the dangers that chemicals pose to reproductive
health. But much of the agency's work has been conducted by a
private consulting company that has close ties to the chemical
industry, including manufacturers of a compound in plastics that
has been linked to reproductive damage.
In 1998, the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human
Reproduction was established within the National Institutes of
Health to assess the dangers of chemicals and help determine
which ones should be regulated. Sciences International, an
Alexandria, Va., consulting firm that has been funded by more
than 50 industrial companies, has played a key role in the
center's activities, reviewing the risks of chemicals, preparing
reports, and helping select members of its scientific review
panel and setting their agendas, according to government and
The company 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
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los
Angeles) in a Wednesday letter called for an explanation of the
company's role and disclosure of its potential conflicts of
interest before the panel convenes Monday. Boxer chairs the
Senate's environmental committee and Waxman chairs the House's
government oversight and reform committee.
Sciences International executives declined to comment to The
Times, referring all questions to the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences.
Michael Shelby, director of the federal reproductive health
center, which is based in North Carolina's Research Triangle
Park, also declined to discuss Sciences International.
But Robin Mackar, a spokeswoman for the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences, which oversees the reproductive
center, said Sciences International "has worked for the center
since 1998 without any problems" and has participated in reports
on 17 chemicals.
"These contractors have no decision-making or analytical
responsibilities," she said.
But according to company and government websites and Federal
Register documents, Sciences International is involved in
management and plays a principal scientific investigative role
at the federal center. The company has a $5-million contract
with the center, according to an NIEHS document.
"The most significant project at our firm is the management of
the National Toxicology Program's Center for the Evaluation of
Risks to Human Reproduction," the Sciences International website
says. It says half its clients are from the private sector, but
its health studies are independent and it "is proud of its
reputation for objective science."
Its current website contains no list of industry clients. But a
2006 version names BASF and Dow Chemical — which manufacture the
plastics compound BPA — as well as DuPont, Chevron, ExxonMobil,
3-M, Union Carbide, the National Assn. of Manufacturers, and 45
other manufacturing companies and industry groups.
In 1999, Sciences International represented R.J. Reynolds
Tobacco Co. in fighting an Environmental Protection Agency
proposal to regulate a pesticide used on tobacco crops. In 2004,
its vice president, Dr. Anthony Scialli, who is identified as
the federal center's "principal investigator," co-wrote a study
with a Dow Chemical Co. researcher on how to extrapolate data
from animal tests to humans.
In addition, another Sciences International employee who works
at the federal agency, Gloria Jahnke, has collaborated nine
times on chemicals research with another company that gets
funding from the plastics industry, according to a Times review
of medical publications.
Sciences International's president boasted about its close
collaboration with the federal reproductive health center, as
well as the EPA and other federal agencies, in a letter
soliciting R.J. Reynolds as a client in 1999.
Signed by company founder Elizabeth Anderson, the letter stated
that Sciences International "serves the private sector,
including many trade associations, on a wide range of health and
risk assessment issues. However, we are different from most
other consulting firms in that we also currently serve
government agencies," which, the letter said, gives the company
"a unique credibility to negotiate with regulators on behalf of
our private sector clients."
The role of Sciences International in the federal center's work
came to the attention of Environmental Working Group, a
nonprofit advocacy group focused on environmental health, last
month after some scientists who saw the report on BPA complained
that it was biased toward the industry's position that low doses
have no effect.
"We are unaware of any other instance in which nearly all of the
functions of a public health agency have been outsourced to a
private entity," wrote Richard Wiles, the working group's
executive director, in a letter to the director of the NIH's
National Toxicology Program, which runs the reproductive health
center. "Questions about the objectivity and adequacy of this
review process and the reviewers must be resolved before a final
decision on BPA is reached."
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.
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
Shelby wrote that there are no requirements for Sciences
International or other contractors to disclose financial
conflicts of interest.
Mackar, of the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences, said the chemical reviews are "all open and public"
and "we're confident in our scientific panel."
But Vom Saal said that although the scientific panel includes
many good, independent scientists, "none of them have expertise
with this chemical."
A Federal Register document describing the center's creation in
1998 said scientists from Sciences International and the center
"constitute a core committee" that "selects the expert panel
membership and establishes the meeting agenda."