Marla Cone is an environmental writer with the Los Angeles Times.(Courtesy of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)
The government agency charged with evaluating the toxicity of the chemical Bisphenol A has hired a private consulting company to do the lion's share of the prep work for them. But it turns out that the consulting company's other clients include the manufacturers of the very same chemical. Los Angeles Times reporter Marla Cone joins host Bruce Gellerman to discuss the details.
GELLERMAN: It’s the job of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to assess the potential dangers that chemicals pose to people’s reproductive health but that job is largely being done on behalf of the federal center by a private consulting firm called Sciences International.
Critics charge Sciences International’s federal contract creates a blatant conflict of interest. That’s because many of Sciences International private clients produce chemicals the company reviews for the government. One of the chemicals they’re now reviewing in a draft report is widely used in many consumer products. It’s called Bisphenol A or BPA and its safety is very controversial. Marla Cone is covering the story for the LA Times and joins us to help sort through the details.
CONE: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: You write that since 1998 Sciences International has been running this center for the evaluation of risk to human reproduction. And you say that their role is very unusual. How so?
CONE: Well it’s not unusual for a federal agency to have private contractors such as Sciences International. But it seems that what is unusual in this case is the extent of how much they do for this center. The Center is the agency that determines which chemicals pose a threat to human health, to human reproductive health. But what happens is that Sciences International is the first step. Its consultants write the first drafts of these reports. They collect all the data on a chemical and they put it into a report. Then the scientific review panel looks it over and makes conclusions. Sciences International also has what the Center calls an administrative role at the Center.
GELLERMAN: But it also has, in its capacity as a private consulting company, some of the companies that it’s doing these reports on: Dow, Dupont, Union Carbide.
CONE: Yes, I have seen a client list of Sciences International. On its website it says that about half of its clients are private and the other ones are government agencies.
GELLERMAN: But many of the chemicals that those companies produce are the same ones that it’s doing these reviews for the government.
CONE: Right. On that list of clients was Dow chemical company, NBASF and they are both producers, or manufacturers of BPA, the chemical that they are now reviewing.
GELLERMAN: What about the conflict of interest or the apparent conflict of interest. Is anybody raising eyebrows about that?
CONE: Well, the National Toxicology Program, which runs this reproductive health center, is concerned. They’ve mounted an investigation. And they say they take the allegation of conflict of interest very seriously. They are now looking to see what types of policies the National Institute of Health has for contractors. They’re not sure if there is a conflict of interest policy and if there is whether it would apply to Sciences International.
GELLERMAN: The advocacy group Environmental Working Group, got a copy of a letter going back to 1999 from SI to R. J. Reynolds the tobacco maker, and, and they want to represent the tobacco company for the EPA over regulating a pesticide; and basically Sciences International is boasting about how they well, they’ve got a unique role both as a government contractor and a private firm and they can get the job done.
CONE: Right they were telling the tobacco company that what they can offer and what many other consulting companies can not offer on environmental issues is that they work for government. They work for these various agencies so they know what these agencies want.
GELLERMAN: Now that they’re issuing a report about this very contentious chemical, this widely used chemical, it’s called bisphenol A. And the government studies have shown that it has an effect, that it mimics estrogen. It can disrupt the delicate endocrine system. Yet none of the industry studies indicate there is an effect. Do you know what their draft report suggests?
CONE: Well, their draft report, the one that was initially written by Sciences International does not reach any conclusions. It does not say this is a reproductive toxin or this is not. What it does is it cites about 500 different studies and it gives a little bit of information about each. But some of the scientists I’ve talked to and Environmental Working Group have gone through it and what they say is it omits some data. It downplays some government studies at the same time as it gives a lot of information about some industry studies, that it has inaccuracies. So they say it’s sort of subtle what they think Sciences International did with the draft of its report.
GELLERMAN: Well, what happens now to that report?
CONE: That report, the panel met for two and a half days, but did not reach a conclusion. And I was told because of the extent and complexity of the data that it is taking more time to report on how serious the risk is from BPA will be out in two or three months.
GELLERMAN: I called Sciences International and they, you know, didn’t want to speak to me. They referred me to the NIH.
CONE: Right and that’s what they did for me too. They have refused to talk about it. They want the agencies to deal with that. The agencies as I said, now are mounting an investigation. They said that they are concerned about the industry ties. But they do not know if there is first of all a conflict of interest policy that this would apply to. I don’t know if there’s any consultants out there that just work for government and don’t take any industry money.
GELLERMAN: Well, Marla I want to thank you very much.
CONE: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Marla Cone is an environmental reporter for the LA Times. Senator Barbara and Representative Henry Waxman are looking into potential conflicts of interest by Sciences International.
[MUSIC: Jenny Wilson “Hey, What’s The Matter” from ‘Love & Youth’ (Rabid Records – 2006)]
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