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To his students, Welshons explains low-dose hormonal effects this way: A cubic millimeter of a chemical is a milligram, which is a relatively large amount. If you take one thousandth of that, you have a microgram, which is visible to someone with excellent eyesight. (It's the smallest particle a human eye can resolve.) If you take one of those microgram particles, waft it onto the floor, step on it and grind it into a thousand more particles, you have nanogram particles, which are invisible to the naked eye. If one of those nanogram particles floats into the air and lands in a 1-liter container of liquid and dissolves there, it creates a solution that, in the case of bisphenol A, will stimulate human breast-cancer cells in a cell culture, causing the cancer cells to proliferate.
Nagel's first study showed that low doses of bisphenol A could have effects; further research indicated that bisphenol A enlarged the prostates of laboratory mice. She demonstrated that the effects in mice occurred at doses close to what humans are exposed to each day from sources such as food packaging. Her study was published in the January 1997 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal put out by the National Institutes of Health.
A second publication of Nagel's findings — this time noting that bisphenol A lowered sperm counts in mice — was approaching when, in late 1997, vom Saal received a visit from John Waechter, a scientist with Dow Chemical. Waechter introduced himself as a representative of a group then called the Chemical Manufacturers Association.
The meeting took place in a conference room in the biology department. Vom Saal and Welshons were there, as were the chairman of MU's biology department and a visiting professor from the University of Illinois. Welshons remembers that Waechter seemed nervous during the meeting.
"He gave all the signs of feeling like he'd been asked to do something which was wrong," Welshons says.
Waechter told the group that the Chemical Manufacturers Association was surprised at the findings in vom Saal's lab and that the association wanted to try to replicate the bisphenol A findings in a larger, industry-funded study.
"They offered a very large, very expensive study," Welshons says. "Obviously a lot of money to the University of Missouri, that's what those things mean. Not money for us personally but as research support."
Vom Saal says he'll never forget Waechter's words: "Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome where you withhold publishing this paper until authorized to do so by the Chemical Manufacturers Association?"
The scientists felt they were being offered a bribe.
Mark Walton, the lead spokesman for Dow Chemical, has been asked about Waechter's visit by media outlets before — Frontline, specifically. He tells The Pitch that what felt to the scientists like bribery was "simply an enormous misunderstanding between what Dr. Waechter attempted to communicate and what was heard by Dr. vom Saal. And there was no intent or effort in any way, shape or form to do anything that would cause Dr. vom Saal to do anything other than to publish science that was accurate."
Vom Saal says that he told Waechter, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his offer.
It was the MU scientists' first glimpse of industry backlash.
In 1998, not long after Waechter visited MU, the American Plastics Council, a trade association that represented industry giants such as Exxon Mobil, DuPont and Dow Chemical, hired an advertising agency. The Washington, D.C.-based Bivings Group (then named Bivings Woodell), created a multitiered campaign to convince Americans to buy plastic — which they were already doing.