Vom Saal says he told Waechter, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his offer.

It was the MU scientists' first glimpse of industry backlash.


jennifer silverberg
Since his lab made frightening discoveries about the plastic lining of aluminum cans, MU professor Frederick vom Saal drinks his beer from glass bottles.
Angela C. Bond
Since his lab made frightening discoveries about the plastic lining of aluminum cans, MU professor Frederick vom Saal drinks his beer from glass bottles.

In 1998, not long after Waechter visited MU, the American Plastics Council, a trade association that represented industry giants such as Exxon Mobil, DuPont and Dow Chemical, hired an advertising agency. The Washington, D.C.-based Bivings Group (then named Bivings Woodell), created a multitiered campaign to convince Americans to buy plastic — which they were already doing.

Vom Saal was aware of the campaign before the first "Plastics Makes It Possible" commercial aired on television. He says a friend of his who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency called to say he'd heard from a well-connected source that the chemical industry was unveiling a massive public-relations project.

"They knew [our studies] were going to be the end of the world for them," vom Saal says. "And they were going to have to spend millions."

"Preemptively," Nagel adds. "Really, because at the time, who needed to be convinced that plastics were good?"

The commercials showed images of children riding bikes — protected by plastic bike helmets — and premature babies being placed into clear plastic incubators.

"The really sick part of this is that they targeted the ads toward babies," vom Saal says. "And what her [Nagel's] data was so clear on was — "

" — That babies are the most sensitive to [bisphenol A]," Welshons finishes.

Rob Krebs, a spokesman with the American Chemistry Council, which merged with the American Plastics Council last year, remembers when the "Plastics Makes It Possible" campaign was in full swing. He denies that the industry group was motivated by Nagel's paper; versions of the campaign were in development as early as 1992, Krebs writes in an e-mail. At the time, he explains, plastic fast-food clamshells and disposable baby diapers were a new solid-waste concern, and people were fearful that the waste would clog landfills.

Krebs says the first wave of plastics commercials focused on educating the public that plastic could be recycled. Later, he says, "We found that benefits messages about plastics preserving health in child safety, medical safety and automobile safety were more appealing to the public at large and scored higher positive impressions with audiences and viewers."

The industry response didn't end with PR.

In science, a controversial finding gains credibility when other scientists can replicate the same experiment with the same results. Vom Saal was expecting other labs to eventually confirm his findings. The plastics industry threw money behind a few corporate laboratories, asking them to try Nagel's experiments. But because they weren't endocrinologists, they needed some help. When representatives from the hired laboratories contacted vom Saal, he didn't mind sending one of his students to AstraZeneca's lab (now Syngenta) in England to teach his methods to their scientists. He also filmed his procedures for the scientists hired by Dow Chemical.

None of those studies found that bisphenol A harmed the developing prostate in low doses.

Meanwhile, Nagel was getting phone calls from the media regarding her paper.

"It was strangely nerve-racking," she says, "because I had no experience whatsoever in talking with the press. At the time, I had limited experience presenting my data in general, even to other scientists."

But Nagel wasn't alone much longer in talking about her findings. In 1999 Chhanda Gupta, a professor then in the pharmacology department of the school of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, replicated Nagel's study and found that bisphenol A permanently enlarged the prostate size of male mice that had been exposed to the chemical as fetuses.

Nagel finished her Ph.D. in reproductive and environmental endocrinology at MU in 1998 and went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University from 1998 to 2001.

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.

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