Under fire by U.S. politicians, World Health Organization defends its claim that an herbicide causes cancer
The World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer agency is firmly defending its finding that a widely used herbicide is "probably carcinogenic" despite reports cited by key House lawmakers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC's) unwavering stance was publicly revealed yesterday by Oregon Representative Suzanne Bonamici, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, at a full committee hearing on the controversial 2015 glyphosate evaluation.
Bonamici entered into the hearing record a series of responses that IARC Director Christopher Wild has sent to the panel in recent months.
Wild specifically criticized two stories from Reuters reporter Kate Kelland that suggested the evaluation, known as a monograph, excluded key information. Both stories were cited in letters to IARC by Republican Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona, the respective chairmen of the full committee and Environment Subcommittee.
One claimed that Aaron Blair, a U.S. National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who led the glyphosate review, excluded from the assessment forthcoming research that he knew would find no link between the herbicide and cancer (Greenwire, 15 June, 2017).
That was because "IARC monographs are based on independent scientific review of published and not on the basis of unpublished or 'secret data' unavailable publicly," Wild explained in a 20 November 2017 letter.
Notably, under Smith, the Science Committee has railed against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that are based on what he often refers to as "secret science."
"Therefore," Wild wrote, "it is false to assert that Dr. Blair was in a position to withhold critical information from IARC."
The other story from last year flagged by Science Committee leaders claimed that IARC omitted evidence that went against its conclusion that glyphosate likely causes cancer in humans and edited a draft review significantly before it was released to the public (Greenwire, 20 October, 2017).
But most of the differences between that draft and the final monograph "specifically relate to a review article" that litigation against Monsanto Co., which uses glyphosate in its popular Roundup herbicides, revealed was ghostwritten by the company, Wild said (E&E News PM, 12 October, 2017).
"The Working Group considered that information in the review article and its supplement was insufficient for independent evaluation of the individual studies and the conclusions reached by the Monsanto scientist and other author," he added. "As a result, the draft was revised."
Abbe Serphos, the global head of communications for Reuters, offered a one-line response to the errors IARC alleged: "We stand by our reporting."
Smith and Biggs had also asked Wild to provide a witness for the hearing. When they didn't immediately receive one, the lawmakers threatened to pull federal support for the agency, which has received more than $48 million from the U.S. since 1985 (Greenwire, 8 December, 2017).
Wild politely declined their demand and instead invited them to visit him in Lyon, France, where the WHO's cancer agency is based. Then in an 11 January letter, he acknowledged "the valuable support of the US National Institutes of Health" and noted that the agency is one of the most highly cited medical research organizations in the world.
It is unclear if Smith and Biggs visited IARC. The committee didn't respond to a request for comment on Wild's offer.
In a 10-page January response that summarized and expounded on the points he made in his letters to lawmakers, Wild also preemptively rebutted many of the criticisms that Republican committee members and the witnesses they invited made of IARC yesterday.
For instance, Representative Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), the vice chairman of the full committee, slammed IARC for evaluating the carcinogenic potential of chemicals but not determining the dose at which they could cause cancer.
IARC's focus on conducting hazard rather than risk assessments is because the agency refuses to "bring their scientific methods into the modern age," Lucas said. "This kind of shoddy work is unacceptable from any scientific body, let alone one funded by the American taxpayer."
Wild, however, said last month in his response that "identifying carcinogenic hazards is a crucially important and necessary first step in risk assessment and management; it should be a 'red flag' to those charged with protecting public health." Regulators can then take immediate action to ban or label carcinogenic substances, or use the observed data to determine how much risk the substances pose.
"IARC defers risk assessment and risk management to national and international bodies, restricting itself to provision of hazard identification as a scientific foundation to those subsequent steps," Wild added.
Anna Lowit, a senior science adviser in EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs who testified yesterday, also defended her agency's draft risk assessment on glyphosate, which found that the common weedkiller doesn't cause cancer (Greenwire, 19 December, 2017).
The draft assessment was released as part of a registration review for Roundup that began in 2009. Lowit said EPA plans to begin accepting comments on it soon.
Roundup has been on the market since 1974. Approximately 270 million pounds are applied annually, mainly to corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide.
EPA's internal watchdog is currently investigating allegations that former agency official Jess Rowland colluded with Monsanto during the review process to counter suggestions it endangers human health (E&E News PM, 7 June, 2017).