National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences

The National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is a division of the National Institutes of Health that conducts and funds research into environmental health and environment-related diseases. NIEHS publishes Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a monthly journal that publishes peer-reviewed research, news about the environment and human health, and editorials and opinions.

Like other government agencies, NIEHS is forced to compete for limited funding and justify its research. The agency has invested millions of taxpayer dollars in finding health problems and has an interest in showing that chemicals it has identified as possibly toxic are in fact harmful to human health. Often, research produced by NIEHS contradicts findings by other U.S. government agencies. Yet this research often leads to highly sensationalistic headlines.

BPA Research Program

For more than 10 years, NIEHS has dedicated research funding to the study of BPA’s safety. Most of the major research published that points to possible health effects from BPA exposure has been funded by the agency. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have also conducted extensive studies on BPA’ safety and concluded that the chemical is safe as currently used. Read more about what major regulatory and public health bodies say about BPA here. {Link to BPA page}

Grant Distribution

NIEHS has dedicated more than $30 million in taxpayer funding to BPA research, yet its method of distributing grants is somewhat controversial. The NIEHS employee responsible for distributing grants for endocrine disruptor research often collaborates with the very researchers to whom he’s awarded grants.
Jerry Heindel, NIEHS’s Heath Science Administrator, has collaborated with Frederick vom Saal and other BPA researchers on at least five NIEHS-funded papers. It should be a conflict of interest for a grant maker to collaborate with a grant recipient on taxpayer-funded research.

Frederick vom Saal and NIEHS

The first scientist to raise major alarms about BPA’s safety was Frederick vom Saal. He based his concerns about BPA on two studies of mice, with seven mice dosed with BPA—an incredibly small sample size. (His studies have not been replicated by other scientists.)
Vom Saal has staked his career on BPA being a dangerous endocrine disruptor and therefore has an interest in criticizing research showing BPA’s safety. Over the past decade, vom Saal has received millions of dollars in research funding from NIEHS and grants from the Environmental Working Group, published several studies on BPA’s health effects for EHP, and joined with other anti-BPA researchers to condemn the FDA for asserting that BPA is safe as currently used. Vom Saal joined a dozen other anti-BPA scientists to criticize the FDA’s decision not to ban BPA in EHP in 2012.

Though vom Saal’s studies have been examined and rejected by the European Union’s Food Safety Authority and various other regulatory bodies around the globe, his research still earns significant media attention, fanning the public’s fear of BPA. Despite other agencies’ dismissal of vom Saal’s studies, he continues to receive grants from NIEHS to pursue additional BPA research.

Funding Researchers with Clear Commercial Interests

The concern generated by NIEHS BPA research has led industry to develop alternatives to BPA. While these alternatives have not been nearly as researched as BPA, the most often-cited study to show that BPA replacements can also act as endocrine disruptors was conducted by George Bittner and a few collaborators with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in NIEHS’s journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

Bittner is the founder of PlastiPure, a company that has launched a line of goods free of “estrogenetic activity” and has a commercial interest in showing that even alternatives to BPA can harm public health. PlastiPure was largely founded with an NIH grant. Three of Bittner’s fellow researchers on his NIH-funded plastics study are also employees of PlastiPure.

On PlastiPure’s website, it notes that “Recent peer-reviewed research indicates that almost all plastics in the marketplace today leach endocrine disruptors, chemicals that display estrogenic activity (EA) and which, once taken into the human body, have been linked to a wide range of serious health problems.” What isn’t mentioned is that Bittner was an author of that research.

Bittner is also the founder of CertiChem, a lab that collaborates with PlastiPure and has received funding from NIH to test plastics for estrogenic activity (EA). Their researchers concluded that many children’s bottles and sippy cups contain chemicals that cause EA. Yet as an article in the Austin Chronicle notes:

For one thing, there are very few standards for testing products for EA. The EPA recommends a “battery” of tests, but it’s still debated which are the most effective and just how many are needed to confirm a product’s safety. CertiChem and PlastiPure relied primaily on a test that they say is the most sensitive for detecting EA, the MCF-7. It’s an “in vitro assay,” meaning it’s done with a cell line rather than in live animals (in vivo). Though many scientists accept that EA can be established by an in vitro test, a positive result isn’t sufficient to prove a product will be harmful to humans.

CertiChem claimed that tritan, a BPA replacement, also caused estrogenic activity. The maker of Tritan, Eastman Chemical, successfully sued Certichem after a jury ruled that in favor of Eastman on counts of false advertising, unfair competition, and conspiracy.