U.S. fires company over apparent conflict
Federal officials have fired a consulting company that was responsible for reviewing the dangers of chemicals for a government health institute while also working for chemical companies.
Sciences International of Alexandria, Va., had been a major contractor for the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction for eight years. The federal center is responsible for determining which chemicals can harm human reproduction or fetal development.
Six weeks after the company’s financial ties to the chemical industry were published by The Times, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which oversees the center, notified the company that its contract was terminated.
Anthony Scialli, a Sciences International vice president, said in an interview Monday that last week’s decision was unfair because the institute had no conflict of interest policy.
“Frankly, we feel we’ve been unjustly treated,” said Scialli, who had been the federal center’s chief scientific investigator.
If the institute “felt it was necessary to have more stringent conflict of interest policies, they should develop them and make sure their contractors comply with them. But to end our contract because we didn’t comply with policies that didn’t exist doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If they want to hold us to standards, they should tell us what those standards are and we will cooperate.”
Scialli said his firm was fired because of political pressure from environmentalists, mainly the Environmental Working Group. Sciences International had one year left in a five-year, $5-million contract.
Institute spokeswoman Robin Mackar said the agency had no comment on the contract issue.
Court documents show that last year, Scialli was hired by 3M as an expert witness to testify in a lawsuit filed by Minnesota residents whose water was contaminated by a chemical that 3M formerly used in Scotchgard. The chemical has been detected in most people’s blood, and some studies suggest it can cause reproductive damage.
Scialli said he notified the federal health center that he was working for 3M but officials seemed unconcerned.
Environmentalists say that points to the need for the institute to develop a formal policy prohibiting conflicts of interest.
“If they think it was OK for their contractor to be an expert witness for 3M, that’s very disturbing,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group.
Sciences International’s main role for the government was preparing drafts of 20 federal reports that summarized scientific data about the health effects of individual chemicals.
Included is a controversial report on bisphenol A, a compound in polycarbonate plastic linked to prostate cancer and other reproductive effects. Some scientists who study the chemical say that the draft report appears to have a pro-industry bias because it omits some findings and downplays its risks.
Some Sciences International employees previously conducted work for BASF and Dow Chemical, two manufacturers of bisphenol A, although that work involved other chemicals. The firm was also paid by three chemical industry trade associations to perform scientific consulting work on three other chemicals that the company reviewed for the government’s reproductive health center.
Wiles welcomed the dismissal of Sciences International and urged the institute to review all 20 of the center’s past decisions on chemicals.
But Scialli said that his role was only to summarize scientific data for the center’s panel of scientific experts and that it was uninfluenced by the chemical industry work.
“What we wrote was very dry and technical. We provided no commentary at all,” he said. The company knew bisphenol A was particularly contentious, so “we were going out of our way to produce a report that was accurate and complete,” he said.
On Monday, the panel issued a statement emphasizing that its decision would not be influenced by the company that assisted them with the bisphenol A report. They are convening in May to decide whether bisphenol A, which is found in baby bottles and other food and beverage containers, causes harm to humans.
“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,” the 11 scientists wrote.