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Studies on Chemical In Plastics Questioned

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Despite more than 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories that have raised health concerns about a chemical compound that is central to the multibillion-dollar plastics industry, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed it safe largely because of two studies, both funded by an industry trade group.

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The agency says it has relied on research backed by the American Plastics Council because it had input on its design, monitored its progress and reviewed the raw data.

The compound, bisphenol A (BPA), has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, behavioral disorders and reproductive health problems in laboratory animals.

As evidence mounts about the risks of using BPA in baby bottles and other products, some experts and industry critics contend that chemical manufacturers have exerted influence over federal regulators to keep a possibly unsafe product on the market.

Congressional Democrats have begun investigating any industry influence in regulating BPA.

"Tobacco figured this out, and essentially it's the same model," said David Michaels, who was a federal regulator in the Clinton administration. "If you fight the science, you're able to postpone regulation and victim compensation, as well. As in this case, eventually the science becomes overwhelming. But if you can get five or 10 years of avoiding pollution control or production of chemicals, you've greatly increased your product."

Mitchell Cheeseman, deputy director of the FDA's office of food additive safety, said the agency is not biased toward industry.

"The fact is, it's industry's responsibility to demonstrate the safety of their products," he said. "The fact that industry generated data to support the safety I don't think is an unusual thing."

The FDA's position on the compound was called into question earlier this month when a National Institutes of Health panel issued a draft report linking BPA to health concerns. Since then, Canadian regulators have banned BPA in baby products, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to prohibit some uses of the compound. Ten states, including California and Maryland, are weighing their own restrictions.

U.S. manufacturers produce 7 billion pounds of BPA annually, and business worldwide has been growing about 4 percent a year, driven by rising demand in Asia. A U.S. government ban on BPA would affect thousands of businesses and perhaps billions of dollars in profit for its largest manufacturers.

As part of his investigation, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to examine the role played by the Weinberg Group, a Washington firm that employs scientists, lawyers and public relations specialists to defend products from legal and regulatory action. The firm has worked on Agent Orange, tobacco and Teflon, among other products linked to health hazards, and congressional investigators say it was hired by Sunoco, a BPA manufacturer.

Dingell has asked the Weinberg Group for all records related to its work in connection with BPA, including studies it has funded and payments made to experts. He cited a letter written by a company vice president in 2003 as Weinberg managed opposition in a long-running regulatory battle over a compound in Teflon. The strategy would be to discourage "governmental agencies, the plaintiffs' bar and misguided environmental groups from pursuing this matter any further," the letter said.


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