The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is the only one of the NIH institutes whose mission clearly has public health at its core. At least it was the only one. Now there are none, thanks to the narrow vision and autocratic management of its Bush appointed Director, Dr. David Schwartz. In the two years he has been at the helm we have seen morale plummet, emphasis change from public health and toward clinical medicine and a variety of scandals plague what was once the proudest and most public spirited member of the NIH family.
Schwartz, like other Bush appointees, has a penchant for outsourcing public functions to private concerns, and under his boss, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, even the peer review function was put out for bids. Schwartz has been dismantling the flagship environmental health scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), moving to outsource it, gut its news and comment sections and eliminate the foreign language editions. EHP is an open access journal, but if it is outsourced it may not remain that way. The biggest losers are the many scientists in the developing world, whose environmental problems dwarf those in the developed world. Schwartz had given his word that EHP would not be privatized, an assurance forced on him by congressional pressure. But one of the most disheartening aspects of his reign is that his word cannot be relied upon.
The latest in this dismaying story is the revelation that NIEHS has cultivated an unusual working relationship with the chemical industry, a relationship that in appearance at least, impugns NIEHS’s integrity as a source of sound scientific judgment on environmental hazards. This story has been circulating for awhile but recently became public with a letter from Representative Waxman in the House and Senator Boxer in the Senate. Now that we have two party government again with its accompanying oversight function by the legislative branch, some of the rocks are being turned over. Here’s what’s under one of them:
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 company documents.
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 [yesterday]. Employees of Sciences International involved in writing it will preside over the meeting. (LA Times via Common Dreams)
This is not a brand new arrangement. It appears the company has been working in this capacity since 1998. In that time they have “participated in reports on 17 chemicals.” NIEHS claims that since they have no decision making or analytical responsibilities, there’s no problem. According to NIEHS. It’s not a problem for Sciences International either:
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.
The cozy relationship isn’t the only thing both NIEHS and Sciences International agree on that there’s no problem. Bisphenol A is another. No problem:
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.
Whenever I as a scientist do any work for the federal government, even sit on an advisory committee, I have to fill out a detailed Conflict of Interest form. It’s a pain in the ass, especially as I have to keep doing it over and over again, but I figure it makes sense. What I didn’t know until this article is that consulting companies like Sciences International, who have much more influence over an agency product than a single advisory committee member, have no such requirement. This whole affair has had the spotlight turned on it by one of Washington’s most effective public interest watchdog groups, the Environmental Working Group (EWG):
“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.”
That statement might be a bit extreme. Not that the function has really been outsourced. That it’s the only example. Because in the Bush administration we see countless examples of tax money being spent on private contractors, who constitute a shadow government, accountable to no one but their shareholders or private owners. And maybe it doesn’t matter as much in many of the other examples. After all, who cares if Iraqis get security and services? (No one, apparently).
But this one is about the welfare of the next generation. I think this one matters. I admit I’m not objective on the subject. I’ve got a grandson on the way.