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In 2004, vom Saal and another endocrinologist, Claude Hughes, conducted a review of the 115 published studies on bisphenol A and concluded that 90 percent of government studies found adverse low-dose effects, but not a single industry-funded study found any effect.
"Honesty in industry is not a requirement," vom Saal says. "As a matter of fact, the willingness to be dishonest seems to be the criterion for these people being hired and representing the chemical industry. We're playing on a very uneven playing field when we talk to them."
Welshons nods. "They can lie, and we can't."
Concern over chemicals such as bisphenol A eventually came to the attention of the government agencies charged with protecting public health. However, vom Saal and his fellow researchers have watched in disgust as federal agencies repeatedly fumble their responses.
The Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to be doing something about bisphenol A more than 10 years ago.
In 1996, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, mandating that by 2000 the EPA was to begin protecting consumers from endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as those used in pesticides and plastics.
Scientists don't know how many of the 80,000 federally registered chemicals act as hormone disruptors. This year, the EPA was to have begun screening the first round of 50-100 chemicals. The tests haven't started yet.
The delay is partly because the EPA rounded up panels of experts to evaluate the process. Scientists were invited, but so were representatives of the chemical industry. Not surprisingly, consensus was hard to come by.
Five EPA panels have met to advise the EPA on chemical screening. Nagel was invited to be part of the second EPA panel for the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program from 2001-03. She listened in frustration as fellow panelists dismissed the importance of measuring low-dose effects of hormones such as bisphenol A and failed to recognize the distinction between testing the chemicals on fetal animals versus adult animals.
Nagel says that on such panels, industry representatives are able to dilute the process because of their tenacity in insisting that there is controversy in science where none really exists. The panels also try not to include particularly outspoken scientists. "They deselect people like Fred and me," she says. "They want people who are trying to bend over backwards not to have an opinion. But industry is never not trying to further their cause."
Nagel was not invited to join later panels. The screening program's participants have since decided to conduct hormone testing on a breed of rat that many endocrinologists consider a bad candidate for such study. The panelists also chose to feed the rats a type of chow that is high in soy, which contains enough natural estrogens to disrupt the study findings. Perhaps worst of all, the panel concluded that it was open to allowing chemical companies to tailor the tests to their liking.
"That's not uncommon at all," Nagel says. "Traditionally, these panels will say, 'Here's the guidelines for the tests, but you can choose one of these four ways [to carry them out]."
The flaws in this effort were widely reported. For instance, The Dallas Morning News revealed that the EPA had solicited advice on what breed of rat to use from a toxicologist who works for a company contracted by the chemical industry.