Effect Measure

Trouble at another NIH institute

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.


  1. #1 caia
    March 7, 2007

    I have a niece who is a year-and-a-half old. I’m not objective either. I’m furious that industry may be poisoning her, and subverting government oversight to do it.

    Like the forthcoming FDA antibiotic decision, it’s just screwing everyone for a little temporary profit.

    It really makes one wonder: don’t any of these guys have families? Children, grandchildren of their own? Anyone or anything they’d put before the largest possible profit? (I’m tempted to say “souls?” but that gets me, as an atheist, onto shaky ground, even if I just use “soul” as shorthand for a variety of traits.)

  2. #2 Greg
    March 7, 2007

    They don’t eat from ther same trough as you and your niece.

    The air in the country-house and the penthouse is different from street-level.

    Just how much they know the purity is deceptive is hard to say. There is a scene in ‘Ecotopia’ where a rogue pilot sprays perfectly safe forest pesticide on a party of those who assure us it is perfectly safe. The author seems to think they know it is a lie.

    The capos always hope they have better chances for survival. Otherwise they wouldn’t be capos.

  3. #3 caia
    March 7, 2007

    Greg that’s just the thing… they may be able to live where the water isn’t poisoned (by them) and the air is clear, but these aren’t so easy to steer clear of. Does every mother they care about not only breastfeed, but not ever give a baby pumped milk, or anything in a plastic cup, as it gets older?

    And do they not get that antibiotic resistant bacteria don’t give a rat’s @$$ about your stock prices, and can kill you no matter how rich you are?

    Either these capos really don’t know the score, or they’re heartless, or they’re delusional, because they’re acting like they live in their own Biosphere IIs. (Which, really, sounds better all the time.)

  4. #4 murison
    March 8, 2007

    Greg and caia, you’re both missing the main characteristic of these creatures: they are sociopaths and hence *incapable* of caring — about your kids, their kids, or the current or future wellbeing of society. They are trained to view existence only in terms of short-term profit, and their sociopathy prevents them from ever venturing from that tiny world view. Sad, pathetic, and very, very dangerous to the rest of us.

  5. #5 caia
    March 8, 2007

    Murison: you may be right, but don’t sociopaths even give a care to their own survival? I guess that’s where the capo thing comes in, they consider themselves immune.

    Also, I was under the impression the sociopathic personality was rare. It’s a little alarming to suspect they make up the majority of boards and/or major stockholders of all these companies, and their industry groups. I know sociopaths can be charming and charismatic, but, yeesh.

  6. #6 Greg
    March 8, 2007

    “sociopath” is just a comforting label. It gives one the illusion that one has accomplished something, although all one has done is hidden behind a simpified mask the greater body, often including the vulnerable parts, of a complex enemy.

    They like to hear such labels. It does them no harm whilst we get diverted bickering with them and amongst ourselves over, what exactly is a sociopath, and are they really sociopathes, or are they more like psychopathes, ignoring what they do.. especially ignoring what we should do.. in favour of what to call them.

  7. #7 etbnc
    March 8, 2007

    What an interesting direction these comments have taken!

  8. #8 RB
    March 8, 2007

    Many people aren’t ignoring what needs to be done, but their efforts are often not reported. I am pleasantly surprised that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) report received so much attention.

    I hope that by putting off their final decision on BPA, the CEHRH isn’t waiting for media coverage on this issue to dissipate.

    They may have cometically removed Sciences International’s invovlement in this project, but I can’t help but wonder how strong their ties already are in this regulatory process and how many decisions about BPA have already been made.

    Why don’t more people “blow the whistle” on what is going on? Why didn’t we know what was going on sooner?

  9. #9 David Harmon
    March 8, 2007

    As I’ve said elsewhere, one primary goal of the neocon cabal (currently d.b.a. “ShrubCo”) is to destroy any power base that could possibly tell them “no”. That especially includes smacking those uppity scientists into line!

    There are plenty of individual pathologies we can point at here, but those are really beside the point. Ultimately the current situation represents political and social decay, with some aspects dating at least back to the Civil War. The original point of democracy was to make the leaders answerable to the people. At this point, ShrubCo have mostly shaken off that leash, and have been progressively looting the tills and pissing on anything they can’t take for themselves.

    As far as caring about America’s future, well these folks figure they don’t need America. With their internationally distributed wealth and power, they figure they’ll be able to flee to some island or remote despotism, to raise their kids among “their own kind”, and ignore all the disasters afflicting the rest of the world. At least some of them can’t grasp the concept that there might be problems they can’t buy, bully, or bullshit their way out of.

  10. #10 Greg
    March 9, 2007

    Why don’t more people “blow the whistle”

    Federal Whistleblower Protection in Jeopardy

  11. #11 Craig Slatin
    March 9, 2007

    The extramural research programs at agencies such as the NIH and the CDC have had large portions of activity outsourced to private “research and management” firms. This has been done in follow-through of former Vice President Gore’s “Reinventing Government” plans, put onto steroids by current Vice President Cheney. You may remember that when W and Dick came to office, they announced a goal of outsourcing 50% of government operations by the time they left office, and that they intended to begin with the Pentagon and the NIH.

    Aside from the goal of shrinking government, these measures permit the following:

    1. weakening the labor movement by eliminating government workers who belong to unions and whose working conditions are regulated by a union contract. This has the delightful intended side effect of reducing the amount of dues collected and thereby the amount of money that unions have to back labor-supporting candidates. Not to mention the ability to pay workers less and take the balance as corporate profits or as bloated salaries for corporate executives – or even use the money for campaign donations.

    2. This also weakens the civil service system, already horribly weakened by years of disregard and neglect. A key purpose of the system was to prevent patronage in government employment and the abuse of government workers for the gain of key politicians.

    3. Outsourcing government functions makes politicians and political parties more ripe for bribing with campaign and other donations by companies that want to then get the contracts to do the government work. On the flip side, the political party in power or that hopes to be in power can then go to companies and promise contracts if sufficient support is provided to get party members elected (a kind of blackmail).

    The system is set to be ripe for corruption and to reduce democratic oversight and control.

    Here are some of my most recent experiences with the system.

    A colleague recently contacted someone at NIH to learn about the scoring of a proposal that she had submitted. She was told that the agency is terribly short-staffed and having great difficulty getting participants for peer review panels and so they set the cut-off for scoring proposals at 180 (lower than has normally been the practice). The agency will get to the proposals that score above that within the next few months and will score all and give summaries for the ones that are not far from 200. The agency employee was exasperated. She told my colleague that between the difficulty that they are having reviewing proposals and the reduced funding they receive for awards, they are funding about 1/2 of what they were several years ago. I have experienced similar problems at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health which has had a woefully small and overworked staff managing its extramural portfolio.

    The other thing that I’ve noticed is that the private corporations who now do the outsourced work of organizing review panels are themselves submitting proposals to do the research – they are establishing research groups. And, I recently read that these corporations, because of their size and wealth, have lobbyists working Congress to make sure that the work of running the research agencies continues to be outsourced rather than rebuilding internal staffing strength – so that they can continue and expand their business. Constella, one of these corporations working with NIH and CDC has an advisory board that has Tommy Thompson, former Director of the DHHS as the chair and Carol Browner, a former EPA director as a member. Constella received about $150M dollars in management and research support from NIH and CDC last year alone.

    In the meantime, academic researchers across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to secure federal research grants. This is due to a combination of budget reductions for the research programs (money is needed for a war based on the lies of an administration that stole two elections to exist, and for drastic reductions in taxation of the wealthiest in our society – corporations and individuals) and ideological barriers put up against what will be funded and who will participate on review panels and science boards.

    Take a look at the board of directors of Tetra Tech, the parent corporation of Science International. Albert Smith is the board chairman. Quoting from their web site:

    “Mr. Smith is a former member of the Secretary of Defense’s Defense Science Board, serving from 2002 to 2005. He was an Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin and President of its Integrated Systems & Solutions business until 2004. From 1999 to 2003 Mr. Smith was Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Company. Prior to that, Mr. Smith was President of Government Systems at Harris Corporation. He has also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, where he received the Intelligence Medal of Merit. Mr. Smith has served as Chairman of International Launch Services’ Board of Directors and as a Director of the Space Foundation.”

    So, Science International, Constella, Lockheed Martin Government Services, Halliburton and its subsidiaries, are part of the ever expanding network of corporations with directors who have been busy running through the revolving doors between corporations and the federal government. As any corporation, their mission demands that they meet the goals of their investors as well as other fiduciary obligations. Their primary goals cannot be to support public health or the firm democracy that is critical to achieve optimal public health.

    In the currently playing German film, The Lives of Others, viewers watch as a character who lived in the former German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and integration with West Germany is able to review all records collected on him by the former police state. It’s powerful to watch this, especially to then realize that here in the US we do not have that liberty. We cannot obtain, for free, the records that government political and police surveillance agencies have collected about us. We have to file Freedom of Information Act requests, pay for the copying fees, only to obtain records that have blacked out because they were deemed as state secrets and security risks.

    Public health goals cannot be achieved in a state where democracy is squashed.

  12. #12 RB
    March 9, 2007

    Thanks for posting the link. That answers the question. Too bad THAT story has been censored!

  13. #13 RB
    March 9, 2007

    So, I guess I really have no option but to continue pursuing a career as an environmental toxicologist (I’ve worked in the field, but obviously can’t get anywhere without the degree).

    It sounds like I won’t get too far just taking the normal steps. I always knew this was a very political field, but it’s getting out of hand! Will I have to work for the enemy? Go undercover? Get creative?

  14. #14 crfullmoon
    March 9, 2007

    Become a freelance journalist/blogger, RB?
    A 😉 “mercenary” environmental toxicologist;
    get some grassroots parenting organizations to fund your work? Consumer Reports?

  15. #15 RB
    March 9, 2007

    Good ideas.

  16. #16 RB
    March 9, 2007

    “SI prepared the 300-page briefing document on the risks of BPA that the panel is using. The conflict of interest arises as “the lead SI manager of CERHR co-authored a scientific paper with an employee of Dow Chemical Company on the critical issue of how animal test results can be applied to human health risk. Dow is a major producer of BPA,” EWG asserts. The document exhibits industry bias by under-reporting studies which indicate the toxicity of BPA.

    (down a few paragraphs)

    However, the relationship between CERHR and SI continues. In Monday’s session, the CERHR panel announced SI would not be in attendance for those meetings. Jovanna Ruzicic, an EWG spokeswoman, called the decision a “meaningless face-saving gesture.” She points out SI was already a major participant in the drafting of the briefing document on which the panel will base its findings. EWG is urging CERHR postpone the panel until SI discloses all of its professional relationships to the public and can guarantee impartiality.”


    What difference will it make if SI “discloses” anything? They need a new panel and need to include and review all relevant studies. Isn’t that the only way to guarantee impartiality on this issue?

    I don’t think they will even mind making a blatantly biased decision right in the media’s spotlight. They are probably just using this extra time to ramp up some slick PR spin.

    I hope this isn’t the case however.

  17. #17 Mousie Cat
    March 14, 2007

    In response to the question, “Don’t they even care about their own survival?” — You’re assuming that (a) they understand the implications of their actions; and (b) that they want to survive on earth. Many of them are hoping the Rapture will save them and their loved ones from the hell they’re creating here on earth for the rest of us.

  18. #18 ergo
    April 4, 2007

    At least the Congress is paying attention to the drift of NIEHS…



  19. #19 Bisphenol A Expert Panel Members
    April 16, 2007

    We are members of the Bisphenol A Expert Panel of the National Institutes of Health, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR). CERHR reviews reproductive and developmental toxicity for chemicals of public concern. Recently, concerns were raised regarding the influence of contractors used by CERHR to aid the Expert Panel. We believe that independent review is the cornerstone of good science and we are proud to use our scientific expertise in the service of public health. Expert Panel members are charged to review available data and render an unbiased and scientifically rigorous opinion. We guard our objectivity, independently evaluate the literature, and work together to reach consensus. Scientific integrity is our most valued possession, and we wish to reassure the public that this process has not been, and will not be, prejudiced by outside influences. Simply said, our final product will be based upon the highest quality science.
    Bisphenol A Expert Panel

    Robert E. Chapin, Ph.D (Chair)
    Jane Adams, Ph.D.
    Kim Boekelheide, M.D., Ph.D
    Leon E. Gray, Ph.D
    Simon W. Hayward, Ph.D
    Peter S.J. Lees, Ph.D
    Barry S. McIntyre, Ph.D
    Kenneth Portier, Ph.D
    Sherry G. Selevan, Ph.D
    John G. Vandenbergh, Ph.D.
    Susan R. Woskie, Ph.D.

  20. #20 revere
    April 16, 2007

    To the panel: Since I know three of you personally (although you don’t know me as Revere) and others by reputation, I can vouch for your integrity and probity. As a frequent advisory committee member myself, I don’t think this affair reflects or should reflect on such a committee.

    A major problem here is the appearance of conflict by the contractor, and while the contractor is under new management and by all accounts a much better one, the simultaneous work for companies whose products are affected by the Center’s deliberations is problematic. This is all compounded by serious questions about the leadership at NIEHS, specifically the Director.

    In any event, I have no problem stating complete confidence in the Panel on the basis of my personal knowledge of its integrity and professionalism.

  21. We are members of the Bisphenol A Expert Panel of the National Institutes of Health, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR). CERHR reviews reproductive and developmental toxicity for chemicals of public concern. Recently, concerns were raised regarding the influence of contractors used by CERHR to aid the Expert Panel. We believe that independent review is the cornerstone of good science and we are proud to use our scientific expertise in the service of public health. Expert Panel members are charged to review available data and render an unbiased and scientifically rigorous opinion. We guard our objectivity, independently evaluate the literature, and work together to reach consensus. Scientific integrity is our most valued possession, and we wish to reassure the public that this process has not been, and will not be, prejudiced by outside influences. Simply said, our final product will be based upon the highest quality science.
    Bisphenol A Expert Panel

    I agree with the other one
    Thanks for all