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Conflict Questions Arise About Scientist's Involvement With Bisphenol A

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday it will look into concerns that a prominent toxicologist asked to render an independent verdict on a sensitive consumer safety issue may have a financial conflict-of-interest.

But an FDA official said there is no reason to believe that University of Michigan professor Martin Philbert did anything improper. The case involves bisphenol A, a chemical used to make plastics that is found in consumer goods from soup cans to baby bottles, and seen as a health risk by some.

Philbert heads an advisory panel that is supposed to deliver an unbiased assessment of the risks of bisphenol A, or BPA. The FDA says it is safe, but some scientists see a cancer risk, and consumer groups want it banned. Another federal agency says BPA risks can't be completely ruled out.

Philbert is also acting director of a risk science center at Michigan. That center received a $5 million pledge this summer from a wealthy businessman who is openly skeptical of BPA's risks. Philbert did not disclose the donation when the FDA scrutinized his finances as he prepared to take charge of the special advisory committee, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Sunday.

In an interview, Philbert said the gift was made to the university and not to him. He does not stand to gain from it, since none of his salary is paid from it, and he is only serving as director of the center temporarily. "I have complied with the letter and the spirit of the law, from the point of view of the FDA and the university," he said.

FDA spokeswoman Judy Leon said that in light of the questions, the agency is reviewing the financial information supplied by the scientist and all relevant federal regulations. Government rules require outside advisers to disclose conflicts, and the FDA bars experts with a financial interest in a company from voting on recommendations that may affect it.

"That said, we have no reason to believe that Dr. Philbert has done anything other than act in good faith on this matter," Leon said. "It is also worth noting that Dr. Philbert was not in a position to benefit."

The grant to the university came from Charles Gelman, a philanthropist who ran a successful manufacturing company. Philbert was part of a group from the university that made presentations to Gelman to ask for money.

On several occasions, Gelman tried to bring up the subject of BPA safety, Philbert said. But the professor said he cut the conversation off. "As soon as I comprehended the substance, I interrupted politely and said this is inappropriate," Philbert said.

Philbert said Gelman's gift to the university did not strike him as relevant under the FDA's conflict-of-interest rules. "I don't declare any of the gifts given to the university," he said. "I don't benefit from this financially, therefore it just doesn't occur to me as a conflict."

His committee's bisphenol safety report is expected at the end of the month.