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Scientist with extensive industry ties quits EU advisory panel

Scientist with extensive industry ties quits EU advisory panel

A German scientist who is critical of the European Union's plan to regulate chemicals and has extensive financial ties to regulated companies has resigned from a key scientific committee of the European Commission.

Wolfgang Dekant was one of 18 scientists who authored a controversial editorial that criticized Europe's plans to regulate hormone-disrupting chemicals. A September investigation by Environmental Health News revealed that Dekant and 16 others had collaborations with the chemical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, tobacco, pesticide and biotechnology industries.

A professor of toxicology at the University of Würzburg, Dekant resigned last month from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks. The committee provides scientific opinions to EU decisionmakers on various topics, such as antimicrobial resistance, fertility reduction and new technologies, such as nanomaterials.

Dekant, who has served as an expert for the European Commission since 2000, said he resigned on his own initiative. His resignation letter was dated Sept. 6, after he signed the editorial that sparked a firestorm among scientists.

"Due to a number of recent developments which have severely restricted my time availability, I am not able to devote sufficient time to contribute to the work," he wrote to the Commission. "I therefore resign from the committee effective immediately."

Dekant said in an email that he had been considering resigning since "March 2013 onwards" because serving on the panel required traveling to Luxembourg and that the "very long opinions/large number of meetings require more time." Also, he said, the "topics seem to move away from my expertise."

"Members (and Commission) wanted me to stay," he said.

A spokesperson for the European Commission declined to comment other than to confirm that Dekant resigned last month. Dekant's name, however, was not removed from the Commission's list of advisors until a few days after the EHN article was published.

EHN's investigation shows that Dekant has a long history of ties to companies that would be regulated by a policy that Europe is developing for endocrine disruptors – chemicals that can interfere with hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormones.

Included are bisphenol A, a controversial compound in hard plastics and food can liners; phthalates found in vinyl and fragrances; furniture flame retardants and pesticides. Lab animal studies and some human studies have linked these chemicals to reproductive problems, cancers, neurological effects and other diseases.

Europe would be the first region in the world to adopt a specific policy that could lead to bans of some of these chemicals, which are used in everyday consumer products. The stakes are high since companies worldwide that sell products in Europe would have to comply.

Earlier this year, Dekant and the 17 other scientists, all editors of scientific journals, signed an editorial published in 14 journals. They criticized a precautionary approach to regulating the chemicals outlined in a leaked draft proposal by Europe's Environment Directorate-General. They called the proposal "scientifically unfounded" and "defying common sense, well-established science and risk assessment principles."

The editorial sparked outrage from other scientists with no declared industry ties, including 41 who wrote in a rebuttal that it "appears to be intended as an intervention designed to impact imminent decisions by the European Commission." Another 104 scientists and journal editors wrote a second rebuttal calling the editorial "a profound disservice" to public health.

This debate focuses largely on two issues for the Commission: determining whether there are safe concentrations for endocrine-disrupting compounds and defining criteria to identify pesticides that would be removed from the market.

Of the scientists who signed the editorial, Dekant appears to have the most ties to industries that would be regulated by the new strategy.

The European Commission is headquartered in Brussels. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dekant, editor in chief of the journal Toxicology Letters, reported in an April 2013 online declaration of interest to the Commission's scientific committee that he had 18 consultancy contracts with companies. He did not disclose the company names, however.

Another document shows that Dekant received money from the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group – part of the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers of bisphenol A. He was paid for a 2008 review that concluded that "exposure to bisphenol A does not result in a health risk to the general population." During that same period, from 2006 through 2008, he served on the European Food Safety Authority's scientific panel, which reported that the EU's acceptable daily intake for BPA was safe.

Dekant also wrote a review on phthalates for a European group representing phthalates manufacturers, ECPI, in 2012 and a review on TBBPA, a flame retardant, for the global association of the brominated flame retardant industry, EBFRIP, in 2010.

He also co-authored a 2010 article on degradation products of pesticides with an employee from chemical and pesticide manufacturer BASF and a private consultant; and two studies on 3-(4-methylbenzylidene)camphor, a UV filter, with employees from this chemical's manufacturer – Merck, in 2006.

BPA, phthalates, TBBPA, 3-(4-methylbenzylidene)camphor, and some pesticides are endocrine disruptors that could be regulated under the new EU policy.

Since 2011, Dekant also has been a member of the scientific advisory panel of the Research Institute for Fragrance Material, an organization for the fragrance, detergents and cosmetics industry, whose members include BASF, L'Oréal and Unilever. In 2007, he was an advisor for the German Association of the Automotive Industry.

Some of Dekant's research activities are supported by private benefactors, such as Honeywell, since 2006. For a 2013 study, he received funding from the Tetrahydrofuran Task Force, a consortium of U.S. manufacturers of tetrahydrofuran, European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) and The Toxicology Forum.

Dekant collaborated with an industry lobby group, International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI Europe), in 2005.

When asked about his industry ties, Dekant replied, "I don't consider conflict of interest as measure tool to judge scientific debate."

Getting money from a mix of sources – including industry – is "the normal way" to do research nowadays, Dekant said. "You can't do research any more if you don't go for money from all sources."

Read EHN's investigation here.

Banner photo: Valentina Pasquale/flickr

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