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Evidence-based medicine as a model for resolving controversies in the evaluation of chemical safety

Paul Whaley, Chemicals Policy Research & Communications,

Friday 18 May 2012, 1500-1600
LEC Training Rooms 1 And 2

Today, chemicals policy is increasingly mired in almost endless and unresolved controversies about the safety of many substances on the market. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a striking example of how a massive research effort has failed to end debate over a substance's toxicity, with governments alternately reassuring their publics about its safety or placing restrictions on its use, while scientists, expert committees, and industry and environment groups disagree about the risks it poses to health.

Conversely, under the stewardship of the Cochrane Collaboration, evidence-based medicine (EBM) has been tremendously successful in resolving controversies in the last 20 years, removing doubt over the effectiveness of many medical interventions from HRT to evening primrose oil. Systematic reviews, the lifeblood of EBM, are now the most-cited papers in the medical literature and part of an increasingly well-defined process for interpreting the state of the evidence and identifying data gaps and research needs.

In the chemicals policy arena there is growing belief that adopting the basic principles of EBM would greatly improve the effectiveness and transparency of evaluations of chemical safety. There have been rapid developments in this area in the US, particularly at the University of California San Francisco and the National Toxicology Panel. In Europe there is strong interest from the European Environment Agency, and budding interest in these issues among public-interest groups in Brussels, some European universities and a growing number of MEPs. Nobody, however, is yet looking at how EBM may function as a model for reform in Europe.

Paul's interest is in the hypothesis that reforms to the evaluation of chemical safety modelled on EBM will help break the deadlock in opinion on substances like BPA. This involves comparing the processes by which chemical safety is evaluated in EU institutions with the processes by which efficacy of medical intervention is evaluated in EBM, in order to outline reforms for improving EU reviews of chemical safety.