By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007
The federal government yesterday fired a contractor it had hired to review the safety of chemicals after discovering the company has been simultaneously working for the chemical industry.
Alexandria-based Sciences International was in the fourth year of a $5 million, five-year contract to run the federal Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction. It has reviewed 20 chemicals to date, helping the government determine whether they pose dangers to reproduction and newborn babies.
At the same time it has been advising the federal government, Sciences International has been on the payroll of Dow Chemical, BASF, 3M and other companies that produce some of the chemicals under scrutiny.
The government took action after questions were raised by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. The group complained that Science International was reviewing bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastic that has been found to cause cancer and reproductive damage in animals. Dow Chemical and BASF, two manufacturers of bisphenol A, have been among Science International's clients.
Richard Wiles, the group's executive director, said the potential conflict of interested points to a larger problem of the federal government delegating too much authority to private contractors.
"Protecting the public health is one of those jobs that can't be farmed out to contractors who have huge conflicts of interest with polluters and chemical makers," he said.
The Center for Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction has a full-time and a part-time federal employee; the rest of its workforce had been supplied by Sciences International. Under its government contract, the company had not been required to disclose conflicts of interest.
Last month, the National Institutes of Health suspended Sciences International, saying it wanted to investigate whether the company's business interests clashed with its government duties. The development was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Herman Gibb, the company's president, could not be reached for comment yesterday. In a March 19 letter to the NIH, he acknowledged three cases in which Sciences International was working for the chemical companies at the same time it was reviewing their chemicals for the federal government. But he said the company reviewed its work and concluded that "no conflicts existed that impaired judgments or objectivity in any of the tasks performed."
That did not convince federal officials. "We still have some concerns about conflict of interest," said Allen Dearry of the NIH, which terminated the contract after interviewing company employees and examining corporate client records.