Nuke Workers Protest Conflicts on Comp Committee
The government panel that reviews health compensation claims by nuclear weapons workers has several members with financial ties to either the Department of Energy or private contractors that managed the facilities, a workers' advocacy group charged last week. In a letter sent to the Health and Human Services inspector general Daniel R. Levinson, the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups (ANWAG) claimed at least three members of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)'s Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health had conflicts of interest that should have disqualified them from participating on the committee, which reviews claims by workers exposed to allegedly harmful levels of radiation.
"The legislation requires that the Board reflect a balance of scientific, medical and worker perspectives, not the employers (DOE) perspective," wrote Harry Williams, president of the Oak Ridge, TN-based Coalition for a Healthy Environment and a spokesman for ANWAG. "The Board was intended to function independently, which it demonstrably has not." Congress established the board in 2000 to review the compensation claims of nuclear weapons workers. The board reviews the scientific validity of individual "dose reconstruction" studies conducted by NIOSH.
Among the review committee members that ANWAG opposes is James Lockey, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He served as a paid DOE expert witness in a lawsuit brought by residents of Fernald, Ohio, where the government once ran a uranium production facility. The plant's closure and cleanup cost the government $4.4 billion. ANWAG also cited a newspaper account that claimed the son of board chairman John Poston, a professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M, was employed by a NIOSH contractor that conducts dose reconstruction studies for NIOSH. The group also protested the inclusion of Wanda Munn, a retired nuclear engineer for Westinghouse, which runs the DOE's Hanford facility in Richland, WA. According to the letter, Munn also worked with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which contracts with NIOSH and DOE to conduct dose assessments.
NIOSH, which commissioned the radiation and worker health review board, defended the use of conflicted advisers. "I can get you a non-conflicted board, but then what good would their opinion be?" senior scientist Lewis Wade told the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The board needs to employ scientists and physicians with ties to industry because of their expertise, he claimed. The NIOSH website reveals that all but one member of the 11-member committee received conflict-of-interest waivers in 2006-2007. ANWAG's Williams said NIOSH could find advisers without conflicts of interest if it looked for them.
House Committee Urges TSCA Reform
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering changes in the Toxic Substances Control Act that will beef up the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate toxic chemicals. The current law requires the EPA prove a chemical is a potential risk before ordering manufacturers to conduct new tests. Environmentalists say that shifts the burden of proof from industry to the agency, which is inadequately staffed to conduct those scientific investigations. Since 1976, the agency has required manufacturers test just 200 out of more than 80,000 chemicals in commercial use. It has placed restrictions on only five.
At last week's hearing, the Government Accountability Office, which has the EPA chemical risk assessment program on its troubled program watch list, called for the U.S. to adopt a system similar to the European Union's Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH). Europe has placed the burden on manufacturers to prove that chemicals used in commerce are safe.
Device Maker, Pharma Offer Lax Disclosure Policies
The medical device firm Medtronic will begin disclosing payments to physicians on Jan. 1, 2010, but only if the payments are larger than $5,000, according to a company press release. Recent voluntary disclosure policies announced by Pfizer and Eli Lilly said those firms will report payments to doctors that are greater than $500. Other drug-makers, such as Merck, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, have also hinted they will soon announce voluntary disclosure policies. The Physician Payment Sunshine Act, introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) and pending in the Senate Finance committee, would require disclosure of payments over $100 beginning in 2011.
Inspector General Investigating Emory, Nemeroff
The Health and Human Services inspector general last week launched an investigation into allegations that Emory University failed to inform the National Institutes of Health about all of the conflicts of interest of psychiatry professor Charles Nemeroff. The Atlanta-based university may also have misrepresented the kind of work that Nemeroff did for GlaxoSmithKline, the Wall Street Journal reported. The probe's announcement came shortly after Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) wrote a letter to the inspector general revealing new information about Nemeroff's relations with Glaxo. Nemeroff recently stepped down from chairing the psychiatry department. The university announced Nemeroff won't apply for more NIH grants for at least two years.
Odds and Ends
Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-NY) has asked the Food and Drug Administration's Janet Woodcock to explain why the agency excluded Los Angeles cardiologist Sanjay Kaul of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute from the Feb. 3 advisory committee that reviewed Eli Lilly's prasugrel for acute coronary syndrome. Kaul, who had previously authored articles criticizing the drug, was removed for having an "intellectual bias." Last week, the FDA admitted it made a mistake in excluding Kaul from the meeting, which unanimously approved the drug. ... A Government Accountability Office report on the Department of Labor's Whistleblower Protection Program said the program is plagued by inefficiencies and inaccurate recordkeeping, leading the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to overstate the number of whistleblower cases that are decided in favor of the whistleblower. ... The chair of the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board, Deborah L. Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota, applauded incoming EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's "deep commitment to scientific integrity" and urged the agency to "establish its environmental priorities for the next five to ten years and to provide the necessary science and research to support and implement cross-media approaches to protecting human health and the environment." ... Documents unsealed last week in a Florida court case reveal drugmaker AstraZeneca told its sales representatives to tell doctors that its psychiatric drug Seroquel didn't cause diabetes despite warnings by a company physician that some individuals would develop the condition, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Cheers and Jeers