Anna Edney, Bloomberg News, November 9, 2022
David Light can’t wait to show off his tchotchkes. The curly haired scientist lights up with boyish enthusiasm when he picks up a black coffee mug from the endless array of memorabilia in his office. It’s emblazoned with the trademark lettering of Zantac, the blockbuster heartburn drug. He quickly moves on to a Zantac wine glass from 1983, when the heartburn drug was approved for sale in the US, and then a white and blue Zantac Swiss army knife. A globe, then a t-shirt, next a hat — all stamped with the drug’s branding.
One floor above his office is the lab where groundbreaking Zantac research took place. But Light didn’t create Zantac — he nearly destroyed it. In the process, he’s also become a stand-in, protecting the American public from cancer-causing chemicals in place of a federal regulator that’s failed to do the job.
Light is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Valisure, the independent testing lab that first released research showing that Zantac and its generic forms were contaminated with a toxic chemical known to cause cancer. The findings, published in 2019, helped lead to massive recalls and eventual market withdrawal. Some two dozen companies were selling versions of the drug at the time.
Valisure truly shot into the public eye last year when it was the first to warn that some widely used hand sanitizers had high levels of carcinogens. Next came the lab’s evidence of leukemia-causing benzene in sunscreens. Then Valisure alerted consumers to dangerous chemicals in spray antiperspirants, and, more recently, dry shampoos. The lab has also warned of contaminants in a popular diabetes treatment. Procter & Gamble Co., Johnson & Johnson, Unilever Plc, CVS Health Corp. and Beiersdorf AG have all issued recalls or halted sales following Valisure’s findings.
In the course of just three years, Valisure’s quest to hunt down cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products has impacted pharmaceuticals and consumer goods in markets worth an estimated $9 billion that touch the lives of tens of millions of Americans.
“I feel that we’ve already saved many lives,” Light said. “When such big numbers of people are exposed, years of exposure with a well-defined carcinogen, there is no doubt there’s unacceptable risk.”
On every step of that journey, the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for safeguarding consumers from these problems, has lagged behind the small lab.
The testing done by Valisure is routine and can be run by any company that makes pharmaceuticals. On a recent visit, a scientist in a white lab coat replicated the experiment on an older version of Zantac at Valisure’s lab in Connecticut. A vial of milky pink liquid disappears into a machine that costs more than some luxury cars. The liquid is vaporized and separated into its various components. After several minutes, there’s a readout on a nearby computer screen: There’s a tall peak, like an irregular rhythm on a heartrate monitor. The figure indicates high impurity levels.
Valisure first released its Zantac findings to the public in September 2019. It took roughly seven months for the FDA to finally force the drugmakers to pull Zantac products off the market.
GSK Plc, the creator and original seller of Zantac, maintains that there is “no consistent or reliable evidence” the drug “increases the risk for any type of cancer,” the company said in an emailed statement. Sanofi, the most recent seller of the non-prescription version of the drug, said it “stands by the safety of the medicine today.”
As problems with carcinogen-laden medications and consumer products continue to fall through the cracks, the FDA maintains it is up to companies to ensure their products are safe. The situation highlights one of the biggest challenges at the agency: It doesn’t conduct much testing for these types of contaminants.
“FDA doesn’t do routine testing,” said Scott Knoer, who served as the CEO of the American Pharmacists Association for two years before stepping down in June.
“I had always believed anything in the US was safe,” Knoer said. “It was not as thorough as I guess previous perception was.”
The FDA takes a risk-based approach to quality testing, said Harrison, the agency spokeswoman. Each year it focuses on analyzing a few dozen products with already known issues. For example, the agency tested many hand sanitizers in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2021.
The FDA has an enormous purview, overseeing not just food and drugs, but also medical devices, tobacco and cosmetics. Despite that, its budget is just half that of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Internal Revenue Service. And about two-thirds of the funding the FDA receives for its drug activities comes from user fees paid by pharmaceutical companies. Since the early 1990s, the FDA and drugmakers have negotiated a deal every five years that Congress then approves. That agreement between the FDA and drugmakers dictates what the FDA can then do with those user fees.
It costs a drug company more than $3 million in fees to submit a new drug application to the FDA for review. In exchange, the agency has to meet review deadlines to help speed up the application process. This all means the regulator has far fewer funds to put toward making sure drugs already on the market are safe. It also means the industry gets a lot of deference.
“User fees provide access to FDA decision-makers in ways that foster a cozier relationship between FDA and industry,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a think tank that focuses on the safety of medical and consumer products.
The agency has taken heat in the last year and a half for approving an Alzheimer’s disease drug that wasn’t fully proven to work, leading to accusations that the body is too beholden to the drug industry. The FDA also let clear signs of problems at an Abbott Laboratories’ infant formula plant slip by for almost five months before overseeing a recall and temporary closure of the factory in February, which ultimately led to a national formula crisis. These fiascoes have consumed the agency at a time when it’s been overwhelmed by the race to approve Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. All the while, recalls of sunscreen, antiperspirants, hand sanitizers and dry shampoo keep piling up.
Carcinogens and Where They’re Found
Rather than embrace Valisure as a partner in protecting the public, the FDA instead turned combative.
On May 24, 2021, Valisure released its findings showing cancer-causing chemicals in sunscreens. Two days later, two FDA inspectors showed up at the lab, according to agency documents. They brought an FDA lawyer with them for three of the 11 days they were at Valisure. The three FDA employees were deployed to the Valisure lab at a time when the regulator was focused on conducting its most critical inspections amid a pandemic backlog.
Valisure has about 20 employees who work in an office space of about 6,000 square feet in New Haven, Connecticut. The FDA, to compare, operates in 3.1 million square feet of office and lab space on a sprawling campus in Silver Spring, Maryland. It has 18,000 employees and a $6 billion annual budget.
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