The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Dueling Agencies

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


On October 22, 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released his annual “Wastebook 2014What Washington Doesn’t Want You To Read.”  The new edition includes 100 wasteful programs or projects, ranging from the bizarre to the truly egregious, worth $25 billion.  Here are just a few examples:

  • A $331,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a study to prove that a spouse with “hanger,” the combination of being hungry and angry, is an unhappy spouse;
  • A $856,000 grant from the NSF to (1) each captive mountain lions how to use a treadmill in order to establish baselines for aerobic activity and then (2) to discover that the cats are “power animals,” with a slow routine walking speed and then a burst of speed to pounce and overpower their prey; and
  • A $371,026 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do the first comparison study of MRI-related brain activation patterns in women as they viewed images of their dogs and kids to see if they loved them equally or not.

Sen. Coburn’s Wastebook makes for entertaining reading and is popular with the sound-bite media, but it serves a very serious purpose; by highlighting the billions that are siphoned off to misplaced and low priority projects and programs, the report helps obliterate the often-repeated claim that federal agencies are short of money.  

That claim came into stark relief when the release of this year’s report coincided with the first stateside outbreak of Ebola.  When questions were correctly raised about the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) and the NIH’s competence and preparedness for the outbreak, agency officials immediately publicly carped that an Ebola vaccine could have been developed if the agencies’ budgets had not suffered deep budget cutsScary campaign ads appeared to show what happens when fiscal conservatives try to rein in the $17 trillion debt.  But Dr. Coburn’s Wastebook 2014 had already exposed billions in wasteful spending at both agencies.  On October 15, 2014, The Washington Post gave the budget cut claims “Four Pinocchios” in their Fact Checker column. 

It is bad enough when hard-earned tax dollars are utilized for the kind of frivolous projects listed in the 2014 Wastebook, but when one federal agency doles out grant money for the purpose of attacking another federal agency’s research, it is downright preposterous.

The federal agencies in this case are the NIH the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the issue revolves around the safety of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA.

 

What is BPA?

According to the FDA, “BPA is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic, which is used in many consumer products.  BPA is also found in epoxy resins, which act as a protective lining on the inside of some metal-based food and beverage cans. Uses of all substances that migrate from packaging into food, including BPA, are subject to premarket approval by FDA as indirect food additives or food contact substances.  FDA can make regulatory changes based on new safety or usage information.  The original approvals for BPA were issued under FDA’s food additive regulations and date from the 1960s.”

The FDA states that a food additive is anything that is added to food.  Additives can be used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation, or storage of food.  But legally, the definition of a food additive allows the FDA to impose a pre-market approval requirement.  Additives that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) do not require government approval.

Additives are broken down into two types: direct and indirect.  Examples of direct food additives are xanthan, which adds a creamy texture to products such as salad dressings or puddings.  These types of additives are usually listed on the food label.  Indirect additives are minute amounts of substances that become part of the food, for example, a substance found in the packaging that may enter the food during storage.

The agency states, “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.  Based on FDA’s ongoing safety review of scientific evidence, the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging.”

FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) continues to study BPA and its research work has shown it causes no harm.  For example, NCTR found:

  • The level of BPA from food that could be passed from pregnant mothers to the fetus is so low that it could not be measured.  Researchers fed pregnant rodents 100 to 1,000 times more BPA than people are exposed to through food, and could not detect the active form of BPA in the fetus eight hours after the mother’s exposure;
  • Exposure to BPA in human infants is from 84 to 92 percent less than previously estimated;
  • That once BPA is in the body, it is rapidly metabolized and eliminated through feces and urine; and
  • That BPA is “exactly the opposite” from some other toxins, like dioxin, that can stay in the body’s tissues for months or even years.

Keep in mind that the FDA is not known for being reckless about science.  In fact, some have complained that the agency is too slow and overly cautious, particularly when it comes to approving life-saving drugs and medical devices for the marketplace.

Single Study Syndrome

In spite of FDA’s assertions of the safety of BPA, the NIH has funded scientists that are on a mission to eliminate BPA’s use entirely.  Between 2000 and 2014, $172.7 million in research grants were given to scientists to study BPA’s effect on humans, particularly as an endocrine disruptor.  (An endocrine disrupter is a chemical that interferes with the body’s endocrine system, which produces hormones that have an impact on nearly every cell and organ in the body and governs metabolism, growth, and the reproductive process.)

Seventy percent of the funding, $121,483,781, was provided between 2010 and 2014.  This time period coincides with the tenure of the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) current director, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D, a 35-year federal scientist, who was appointed to the position on January 18, 2009.  She has been called out by members of both the House and Senate for her participation in biased activities when, as a federal official at a science-based agency, she should be focused instead on providing dispassionate research.

In turn, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group use the NIH-funded research to attack the FDA. 

Jon Entine, a “researcher and journalist focusing on sustainability, science and public policy” who writes “skeptically about science, public policy, media and NGOs” believes Birnbaum is an unabashed anti-BPA activist.  He wrote of Birnbaum, in an October 31, 2012 Forbes article on BPA:

“There remains a very large divide between the views of regulators who rely on risk assessment and the academic scientists who look for endocrine effects regardless of whether those effects can cause harm.  University researchers have one high-profile supporter in Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences.  In an April [2012] editorial in the NIEHS-published journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Birnbaum argued that ‘it is time to start the conversation” about incorporating low doses and non-monotonic relationships into regulatory decisions.’

No prominent regulatory scientist has followed her lead. Why? Because no evidence has yet been presented that suggests that BPA, atrazine, phthalates or related chemicals are biologically active enough to harm the human endocrine system.”

The continued taxpayer-funded attacks on BPA represent what Jon Entine says in his Forbes article: “One of the most disturbing trends in science reporting is what The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin calls ‘single-study syndrome’ – the increasing tendency of reporters and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to trumpet research that supports a pre-determined perspective.” Often, many of the BPA research studies utilize questionable modes of delivery into their animal subjects.  For example, using injection as opposed to oral consumption, often in dosages larger than any human would ever normally consume.

Another Forbes Contributor, Trevor Butterworth, who writes about “data and statistics and how they are interpreted in our so-called ‘knowledge economy,’ especially in relation to risk and regulation” wrote two superb articles on the scientists that continually attack BPA, many of whom are underwritten by grants from the NIH, another taxpayer-funded agency.  One was released on October 27, 2011, entitled “Top Government Scientists Catch Media’s Favorite Anti-BPA Researcher in Absurd Claims, Ties to Trial Lawyers” and another was released on April 9, 2014 entitled “BPA: The Scientists, The Scare, The 100-Million Dollar Surge,” goes into detail on the shakiness of the anti-BPA research and the scientists’ ties to trial lawyers.

In addition to the FDA, several government regulatory bodies in countries around the world believe BPA is safe.  The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has stated, its “scientific opinion shows the level of BPA that consumers of all ages are exposed to is well below the estimated level of safe exposure.”

With a bureaucracy as sprawling, wasteful, and inefficient as the one taxpayers are funding in Washington, D.C., it is an understatement to say that the bureaucratic left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  But, when one federal agency is handing out millions of tax dollars to outside influences knowing that the findings will be used for the purpose of attacking, undermining, and reversing the taxpayer-funded work of another taxpayer-funded agency, that idiom is elevated to a whole new and absurd level.  The taxpayer-funded duel between the NIH and the FDA should be stopped.

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