Missouri biologist Frederick vom Saal and his team exposed the dangers of bisphenol A — and earned the wrath of the plastic industry. 

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The first seminar she attended was taught by Frank Welsch, a scientist who'd tried to repeat Nagel's study and found no effect of bisphenol A.

Welsch, who worked for the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (which is funded by the American Chemistry Council), presented his analysis showing that he couldn't find any effect of bisphenol A in a developmental study.

"Here I am, sitting there, and all he [Welsch] is doing is presenting a study showing that he couldn't find any effect," Nagel says. "It's highly unusual. My work was the entire focus of the seminar."

Welsch's 2000 publication on bisphenol A's effect on the weight of developing mouse prostates was later the subject of a peer review at the National Institutes of Health; the authors of the peer review called Welsch's work on bisphenol A "seriously flawed" and "misleading."

"It took a couple of years," vom Saal says of the follow-up studies. "By 2000, there were five or six papers published [on low-dose effects of bisphenol A]. By 2001, there were a few more, and there were 30 the next year, 50 the year after that."

"And 150 by 2006," Welshons adds. "It's one of the most-studied chemicals now."

But industry-funded studies kept insisting that bisphenol A was safe.

In 2003, Welshons and vom Saal traveled to an international toxicology symposium in Germany, at the University of Berlin, where scientists from around the world were presenting papers on their research. Many of the papers presented were on bisphenol A.

A scientist named Jörg Oehlmann showed how bisphenol A in snails caused such an overgrowth in ovarian cells that the animals exploded and died.

A study by Gilbert Schönfelder found amounts of bisphenol A in human blood, specifically in the blood of pregnant mothers and in the placenta and umbilical-cord blood of their babies.

Then Waechter, the scientist with Dow Chemical who had visited vom Saal's lab at MU, stood up and read the results of a study he'd co-written. The study, which contradicted Schönfelder's, insisted that humans aren't exposed to bisphenol A because they metabolize it completely in the liver. His findings had come from cultures he'd done with liver cells in petri dishes, not living animals.

"It was at that point that you went a little ballistic," vom Saal says with a giggle, looking at Welshons.

Welshons says he stood up in the auditorium in Berlin and challenged Waechter's facts.

"I was civil," Welshons says. "I asked questions like, 'On what basis do you accept this C-R-A-P instead of actual measurements from animals and people? What basis is there for that?' And he ran away."

"Waechter literally stopped taking questions and ran out of the room," vom Saal says. "We're in this big corridor, and Wade jumps up and runs after him, and he's yelling, 'Come back here! Come back here and answer this question!' And Waechter ran out of the building with everybody in the audience sitting there."

Other scientists at the meeting don't remember it this way. Oehlmann, the scientist who did the snail study, writes in an e-mail, "I attended that meeting in Berlin in 2003 but do not remember a person leaving the room after being asked a particular question." Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University who attended the Berlin symposium, tells The Pitch in an e-mail, "There were several heated discussions at the meeting, but I do not recall anything like this."

Waechter wasn't available for comment. But Walton, Dow Chemical's spokesman, explains Waechter's behavior in an e-mail to The Pitch. Walton says that, according to Waechter, the confrontation happened on a stairway outside the meeting hall. "Dr. Waechter said that he told Dr. Welshons that he had a telephone call he needed to make at that moment and that he would not be able to have that discussion then, and that he then proceeded to his hotel room to make his telephone call. Dr. Waechter said the entire discussion took only a few seconds," Walton writes.

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