Politics & Policy

A Malignancy Grows at an International Cancer Agency

(Dreamstime image: Danil Chepko)
The prognosis for a controversial cancer agency looks terminal.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) now faces congressional inquiries, legal challenges, and harsh criticism from the scientific community that are shredding the agency’s credibility and threatening its future. The Lyon, France–based group is an arm of the World Health Organization and has received millions in U.S. tax dollars, funding that is now being questioned by top lawmakers on Capitol Hill including House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz. Congress is also investigating whether IARC is colluding with officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to advance a political agenda rather than sound science.

IARC’s central role is to evaluate certain risk factors and whether they can cause cancer. Each year, an IARC working group produces a report — called a monograph — classifying the level of risk for each agent. Out of the nearly 1,000 factors IARC has evaluated, only one (caprolactam) was deemed non-carcinogenic.

But one particular finding — that the agricultural chemical glyphosate is carcinogenic — led to serious questions about IARCs scientific integrity and exposed conflicts of interest among IARC participants who are trying to influence public policy here and abroad. In March 2015, IARC released its monograph on glyphosate, classifying the chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It is the only international agency to issue such a classification.

That report raised immediate suspicions for being politically motivated; glyphosate is a widely used weedkiller now targeted by environmental and anti-GMO groups around the world because it is used on several genetically engineered crops. The chemical was created by Monsanto, which also sells genetically engineered seeds, and sold under the brand name Roundup. Nearly every other scientific and governmental agency has determined that glyphosate is safe. (After the IARC report in March 2015, a separate WHO agency found that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer.) But armed with the imprimatur of a global health agency, anti-GMO activists brandish the report as proof that glyphosate is unsafe and unhealthy.

It wasn’t long before IARCs monograph was widely discredited. Even the head of the European Food Safety Authority denounced the report and the IARC as “the first sign of the Facebook Age of Science,” writing, “You have a scientific assessment, you put it on Facebook, and you count how many people ‘like’ it.” Questions about a corrupt process also began to emerge; the man who pushed for the glyphosate review, Christopher Portier, is an environmental activist and worked part time for the Environmental Defense Fund (he told me he didn’t view this as a conflict and did not see the need to disclose that to the IARC).

Portier also served as an adviser to the working group that determined glyphosate was carcinogenic. Once the report was done, Portier gave speeches to governments and activist groups touting IARC’s findings. He did this while continuing to insist he was not an activist. He said as much to me in an e-mail last spring, then gave me this warning: “You may be harming your health or the health of your children especially when they are certainly exposed to the compound.” Portier was scheduled to speak at a fake Monsanto “tribunal” in The Hague on October 16 but canceled his appearance at the publicity stunt when his participation was made public.

Another agency seems to be playing political games about glyphosate: the EPA. The agency continues to delay a safety reevaluation on glyphosate despite two recent reports that reaffirm EPAs longstanding position that glyphosate does not cause cancer. Lawmakers suspect that the delay is politically motivated and are demanding answers.

In a scathing letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy on October 25, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith accused McCarthy of making “misleading and untruthful statements” to Congress last summer about the glyphosate report as well as about her agency’s involvement with IARC: “The increasing amount of evidence depicting the close ties between EPA officials, Christopher Portier, and the IARC study of glyphosate show that there are activists working both inside and outside the agency to derail this process.” Smith is seeking testimony from three EPA employees tied to the IARC working group.

Chaffetz is now asking the National Institutes of Health to explain why U.S. taxpayers continue to fund IARC “despite this record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies.” Chaffetz accuses IARC of trying to “influence American policymaking, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science advisory committees in America.”

Ten top experts in the fields of toxicology and oncology published a report in a prestigious scientific journal on October 26, writing that IARC’s methods are outdated and cause ‘unnecessary health scares.’

But despite the fact that IARC gets U.S. tax money, it doesn’t feel bound by U.S. law. IARC officials counseled its working-group members to ignore Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), which is seeking documents related to the glyphosate monograph. IARC working-group members include scientists from American public universities and EPA employees who are required to comply with FOIA. (A Mississippi State University professor offered his resignation from a subsequent IARC group in response to the group’s request to avoid FOIA inquiries.) E&E Legal blasted the cancer agency: “Unfortunately, by their behavior, every player in this unfolding drama thinks they have a right to hide public records from the public. They do not.”

As if congressional and legal pressures aren’t enough, IARC is on the receiving end of withering criticism from its own ranks. Ten top experts in the fields of toxicology and oncology published a report in a prestigious scientific journal on October 26, writing that IARC’s methods are outdated and cause “unnecessary health scares and unnecessary diversion of public funds.” The scientists are recommending an international initiative to develop updated methods for carcinogenicity assessments.

“IARC has become the byword for activist science, disgracing the reputation of international research agencies and undermining the public trust in evidence-based scientific policy advice,” said David Zaruk, a Brussels-based professor and blogger who has extensively covered the IARC fiasco. “I strongly urge countries like the U.S to take responsibility for the mess this agency has become, demand a wholesale reorganization, or stop funding it.”

Might be time for lawmakers to pull the plug on this ailing agency.

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