Insight: Science for hire - Trial over plastic exposes disclosure deficit

Thu Jul 18, 2013 10:49am EDT
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By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK (Reuters) - By 2012, Eastman Chemical seemed to be perfectly positioned when it came to producing plastic for drinking bottles. Concerns about a widely used chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) had become so great that Walmart stopped selling plastic baby bottles and children's sippy cups made with it and consumer groups were clamoring for regulators to ban it. Medical societies were warning that BPA's similarity to estrogens could disrupt the human hormone system and pose health risks, especially to fetuses and newborns.

Eastman, a specialty-chemicals company headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee, had been selling Tritan, its trademarked hard, clear plastic, as an alternative to BPA for five years. It told prospective customers that Tritan was free of BPA and any other chemical that mimicked human hormones like estrogens. To support the claim, the company pointed to "independent third-party testing," whose results were reported in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, which is published by Elsevier.

As more manufacturers and retailers abandoned BPA, some wanted to make absolutely sure that Eastman's safety claims for Tritan had been reviewed independently. The Austin, Texas, office of upscale grocer Whole Foods, for instance, asked Eastman if it funded "any of these labs" that determined Tritan had no estrogenic properties, according to an email from Eastman chemist Emmett O'Brien and disclosed in a lawsuit.

"I mentioned that we did not and they were happy with the answer," O'Brien said in the email.

Eastman did not make O'Brien available for comment. Because an employee of Whole Foods "is under subpoena in this case," said spokeswoman Libba Letton, "we can't comment on it."

In fact, the four labs that tested Tritan for the peer-reviewed paper in the Elsevier journal received funding from Eastman that was not publicly disclosed. Also not reported by Eastman's marketing materials or the paper: The lead author of the study, who analyzed the data from the four labs, was paid by Eastman for that work.

The financial relationships Eastman had with four "independent" labs emerged from discovery in a lawsuit brought by the company against two chemical testing and consulting firms that challenged the safety of Tritan. In the case, which began this week in Austin, Eastman alleged that PlastiPure Inc and CertiChem Inc falsely portrayed Tritan as having hormone-disrupting properties similar to BPA in an effort to market their own services.

It isn't clear how or whether Eastman's role in sponsoring its pro-Tritan study will figure in the case. But the connection between Eastman and scientists who produced the favorable study raises questions among some scientists and businesses about the company's description of the research as independent.   Continued...

The bottom of a BPA-free Tritan water bottle is pictured in Toronto, Ontario July 13, 2013. REUTERS/Steve McKinley