First, we have Martin Philbert, who is the chairman, on the committee that is expected to release their opinion this month on the safety of Bisphenol A. This is the chemical used in items such as baby bottles, reusable food containers and plastic wraps. Next, Martin Philbert is also the founder and co-director of University of Michigan Risk Science Center. Now here’s where the conflict begins.
A medical supply manufacturer, by the name of Charles Gelman, decides out of the goodness of his heart to give $5 million dollars to the research center. His July donation is 50 times the annual budget of the research center. Mind you this is the same manufacturer that is saying that Bisphenol A is safe. Even though scientist who have published their research in the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” report that it is linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The National Toxicology Program concluded that there is “some concern” that fetuses, babies and children were in danger because bisphenol A, or BPA. Some scientists suspect that exposure early in life disrupts hormones and alters genes, programming a fetus or child for breast or prostate cancer, premature female puberty, attention deficit disorders and other reproductive or neurological disorders.
Charles Gelman thinks that the worries about health risks posed by the chemical are exaggerated by “mothers’ groups and others who don’t know the science.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered that, Philbert did not disclose the donation to the FDA, and that agency officials learned of it when reporters, Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger asked about it. This is the answer the FDA gave to Susanne and Meg.
Norris Alderson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for science, looked into the matter and said he was satisfied that there was no conflict of interest because Philbert’s salary is not paid by the donation.
No surprise at that response by the FDA. The New York Times had a big problem with the conflict of interest and did an op-ed on the subject.
For an agency that claims to be rooting out conflicts of interest, the Food and Drug Administration has done a poor job of handling what looks like a potential conflict on a committee evaluating the safety of bisphenol-A, known as BPA.
That is an incredibly narrow definition of what might constitute a conflict. (The NYT is referring to Philbert’s salary not being paid by the donation.)
We are not challenging the integrity of Dr. Philbert, who told the Journal Sentinel that he was impartial and denied that the Gelman family had ever tried to influence his judgment. We are certain that Dr. Philbert should have disclosed the contribution. And we are certain that the F.D.A.’s review of the matter needs to be a lot more rigorous and transparent.
The agency also must explain more fully how it will mitigate any possible conflict or else ask Dr. Philbert to step aside. Consumers need to know that any decision on BPA is completely unbiased – and that the F.D.A. is, too.
I consider that a reprimand that is long overdue to the FDA on many issues. Just nice to finally see it in print – thank you New York Times for a great op-ed.