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NIH Fires Contractor

Agency found that consulting firm evaluating chemical also works for chemical manufacturers

by Bette Hileman
April 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 17

Credit: IStockphoto
Credit: IStockphoto

On April 14, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, notified Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm Sciences International that its $5 million contract for reviewing chemicals was terminated because of apparent conflicts of interest.

For the past eight years, Sciences International has been working for the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), which is housed at NIEHS. The firm has been evaluating chemicals that might pose a risk to human reproduction or development. At the same time, it has been working for companies, such as Dow Chemical and BASF, which manufacture the chemicals being evaluated.

Most recently for CERHR, Sciences International has reviewed the literature on bisphenol A, written a draft report, and helped choose a panel to produce a final report on the compound's effects on human reproduction. In early March, NIEHS suspended Sciences International from further work on bisphenol A after an advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), revealed that two manufacturers of bisphenol A have been clients of the consulting firm (C&EN, March 12, page 13).

"The termination of the contract was totally unfair," says Sciences International President Herman Gibb. "There were no conflicts of interest. The people working on the bisphenol A report were not aware that any Sciences International employees had ever worked for BASF or a law firm that represents Dow. I am going to have to let people go. NIEHS never gave us any written policy on conflict of interest."

Allen Dearry, interim associate director of the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program housed within NIEHS, has no comment on the firing of Sciences International. Apparently, only one full-time and one part-time government employee have been working for CERHR. The center has contracted out the rest of its work to Sciences International, which has participated in the reviews of at least 14 chemicals since 1999.

EWG Executive Director Richard Wiles says Sciences International's potential conflicts of interest are emblematic of a larger problem in the federal government. "A huge portion of chemical reviews have been farmed out to private contractors who also work for chemical companies," he says.

A Government Accountability Office report published in February 2005 noted potential problems in such arrangements. It recommended that the "National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency develop formal policies for evaluating and managing conflicts of interest when entering into research arrangements with nongovernmental partners, particularly those also representing a regulated industry."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to NIEHS Director David A. Schwartz on Feb. 28 asking for a briefing to discuss potential conflicts of interest involving Sciences International, but a formal meeting has not yet taken place.??

Bisphenol A, one of the chemicals reviewed by Sciences International, leaches into food from can linings.



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