The National Institutes of Health has temporarily suspended a federal contractor that had been reviewing the health dangers of chemicals for the government while also working for the chemical industry.
In addition, the NIH will convene a new advisory panel to investigate all toxicology program contracts for conflicts of interest and report back by July 1.
For eight years, Sciences International, an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm, played a major management and scientific role at the federal Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, which is responsible for deciding which chemicals harm human reproduction. The company prepared the center's preliminary reports on the risks of about 20 chemicals.
After the company's financial ties to more than 50 chemical companies and groups were reported in a Los Angeles Times article last month, the NIH told Sciences International to conduct its own internal investigation. In response, company president Herman Gibb reported in a March 19 letter that Sciences International was paid by three industry associations to perform consulting work on three chemicals that it also reviewed for the government reproductive health center.
Sciences International prepared the federal health center's review of the risks of styrene -- used in plastics -- and worked for a styrene industry trade group, Gibb said in the letter. The company also prepared the government review of ethylene glycol, used in automobile antifreeze and plastics, and worked on the chemical for the American Chemistry Council. It also was funded by the United Soybean Board and reviewed the health risks of soy formula for the federal center.
Gibb defended his company's work in the letter, saying that "no conflicts existed that impaired judgments or objectivity." He said employees who conduct the government reviews "have historically been insulated" from the firm's other work and were unaware that other employees were working for the industry associations. He also outlined steps the firm would take to find and report potential conflicts.
Sciences International also in recent years worked for BASF and Dow Chemical, two manufacturers of bisphenol A. The company wrote the health center's draft report on the chemical, which is found in polycarbonate plastic baby bottles and other containers. Bisphenol A mimics estrogen and has been linked in animal studies to prostate and breast cancer and reduced fertility.
Some scientists who study bisphenol A say that the review prepared by Sciences International downplays its risks and omits some findings.
But Gibb wrote that there was no conflict because his company didn't work on bisphenol A issues for Dow or BASF. The review was done "with no outside influence from industry. The summary was objective and the integrity of the science was never compromised," Gibb wrote.
The company's three-page letter -- obtained Monday by the Times through a Freedom of Information Act request -- did not include a client list and did not detail the firm's industry work.
Richard Wiles, executive director of the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, called the company's self-audit superficial and said he was concerned that many public health decisions had been influenced by the company.
"What this really revealed is a broader need for an independent investigation," Wiles said.
The company's report is not very credible, said Carl Cranor, a UC Riverside philosophy professor who specializes in legal and ethical issues related to environmental risks.
"They focus on narrow conceptions of conflict of interest and say they didn't violate them," he said. Sciences International is "supposed to be an independent arbiter of what the science shows, but it also works for industry and I think it's very difficult to do both of those tasks credibly," he said.
Sciences International said in promotional material for clients in 1999 that its role as a federal contractor would be beneficial to regulated industries.
"As far as I am concerned, such an implication is inappropriate," said David Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in a letter sent last week to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
NIH spokeswoman Robin Mackar said Tuesday that no decision had been made yet about whether to remove the stop-work order on Sciences International's $5-million contract, which runs through June 2008. She said the company's performance was still being evaluated.