Canadian Scientists 'Forced
To Approve Drugs Not
Safe For Human Consumption'
By Dennis Bueckert
The Canadian Press
OTTAWA (CP) --The Health Protection Branch is once again the centre of controversy, with six of its scientists charging they have been pressured to approve drugs of questionable safety.
In what is believed to one of the first cases of its kind in Canada, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada -- the union representing the scientists -- has taken the complaints of management interference before the Public Service Staff Relations Board.
Activists from the Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians held a news conference Wednesday to publicize the case, since the scientists are under Health Department orders not to talk to the media.
"The department scientists are forced to approve drugs not safe for animal and human consumption," said Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians."This is the corporatization of the government of Canada's Health Protection Branch."
She called for a public investigation of the branch, saying drug companies now provide 70 per cent of its financing and have too much influence over the drug-approval process.
Earlier this month the Canadian Medical Association Journal carried an article saying secrecy at the Health Protection Branch is raising suspicions about the influence drug companies have over drug approvals.
In 1996, Michele Brill-Edwards resigned from her job as a drug reviewer at the branch because of what she considered to be undue industry influence over the drug approval process.
Government lawyers failed Wednesday to get the grievances of the six scientists tossed out for lack of evidence. It's expected the Public Service Staff Relations Board will release a decision next month.
Asked about the alleged gag order placed on the scientists, Robert Joubert of the Health Protection Branch said it is normal policy that only designated officials speak for the Health Department.
Many of the scientists' concerns centre on bovine growth hormone (BGH), a genetically engineered drug manufactured by Monsanto which increases milk production in dairy cattle.
The drug has been under review for some 10 years and it has become a symbol in a seemingly endless tug-of-war between biotechnology companies seeking markets for their products and skeptical consumers groups.
An internal document obtained by the Sierra Club under Access to Information legislation shows BGH produced cysts in the thyroid of male rats when administered at high dosage.
Two years ago Health Department officials said the consumption of milk or meat from cattle treated with BGH poses no risk to human health, although they were not sure about the safety for animals.
Joel Weiner, a spokesman for the Health Protection Branch, said Wednesday that position has shifted due to new scientific evidence. The question of human safety is now considered open, he said.