Inside Washington: Science-based or hazard-based?

Criticism grows over how IARC reaches conclusions of what is carcinogenic and whether that leads to unwarranted health scares.

In the ongoing discussion of technologies used in agriculture, a common thread among those in the industry is the need to keep discussions based on science rather than hazards. That call is getting louder to the government entities that are supposed to base their decisions on science, too.

This week, there has been plenty of news on the U.N. World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC). You probably know the agency best for its questionable scientific report that found processed meats — such as hot dogs, pepperoni, bacon, sausage and deli meats — to be “carcinogenic to humans.” The other major IARC bombshell came in 2015 when it classified glyphosate – the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup – as “probably carcinogenic” for humans.

IARC is coming under fire from multiple stakeholders as to how it is reaching these lofty conclusions that are sometimes based more on a hazard-based assessment rather than science and true risk.

Dr. Janet Collins, CropLife America senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs, said it the organization is disappointed that IARC has continued its hazard-based approach to the assessment of crop protection chemicals.

Collins said, “When communicating with the general public about any potential health concerns in its environment, it is important that organizations characterize hazard with perspective regarding actual exposure and real human health risk, which IARC’s communication in Lancet fails to do.” She added that communication from IARC adds uncertainty when qualified scientists can’t view the conclusions alongside the scientific support for such conclusions.

Ten prominent experts in toxicology, oncology, pharmacology, biology, endocrinology, genetics and related disciplines who have worked across academe, government and commercial product research, development and regulation published views stating that IARC and U.N. Global Harmonized System for Classification & Labeling use outmoded hazard-based schemes to evaluate cancer risks to the public. The authors noted that application of these approaches and classification schemes can lead to unfounded public concerns and reactionary public policies — for example, inappropriately placing red meat consumption in the same category as exposure to mustard gas.

"This hazard identification-only process places chemicals with widely differing potencies and very different modes of action into the same category," said Dr. Alan Boobis, professor in the department of medicine at Imperial College London in the U.K. "The consequences are unnecessary health scares and unnecessary diversion of public funds."

The commentary recommends updating evaluation approaches by these and other international government organizations to utilize internationally accepted methodologies already used by many government regulatory bodies for cancer risk assessment using existing consensus-based frameworks, including those of the World Health Organization's International Program on Chemical Safety.

The authors noted the continued use of outmoded hazard-only identification schemes also has serious consequences for society. 

"Health scares triggered by recently published IARC reports have resulted in governments and public agencies responding with costly supplemental reviews and, in some cases, restrictions or bans on products which had significant public benefits," said Dr. Timothy Pastoor, a former industry senior scientist. "By promoting and defending this solely hazard-based approach, society loses important tools and often replaces them with less-effective, sometimes more toxic alternatives with no basis in sound science."

Reuters reported that IARC cautioned its scientists who worked on the 2015 glyphosate review against releasing requested material on how it reached its conclusion. “IARC is the sole owner of such materials,” IARC told the experts. “IARC requests you and your institute not to release any (such) documents.”

That seems to be the case at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. House Science, Space & Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy regarding her testimony before the committee at a June hearing titled "Ensuring Sound Science at EPA." A statement from Smith noted that "McCarthy’s testimony contained misleading statements concerning EPA’s role" in the IARC study of glyphosate.

McCarthy indicated that no EPA officials worked on IARC’s finding that glyphosate probably causes cancer. However, documents obtained by the committee put these statements in question (more). Based on this discrepancy and EPA’s recent decision to delay its Scientific Advisory Panel’s upcoming meeting on the chemical, the committee is “concerned that EPA will not evaluate glyphosate based on sound science.”

EPA announced Oct. 14 the further delay of the Scientific Advisory Panel’s upcoming meeting on glyphosate.

The committee has also determined that EPA officials maintained a close relationship with activist IARC participant Christopher Portier. Smith’s office said, “Portier spearheaded a letter-writing campaign challenging the European Food Safety Authority’s study on glyphosate. Christopher Portier’s brother, Kenneth Portier, was named as a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel to review EPA’s work on glyphosate earlier this month.”

Conflicting scientific assessments have delayed a decision on whether glyphosate should be relicensed for sale in Europe. Smith and other U.S. lawmakers have also questioned whether IARC should receive funding from U.S. taxpayers.

Collins noted that CropLife America “welcomes the interests of a variety of congressional committees that may provide oversight on all manner of pesticide policy matters, including the interest shown about IARC funding.”

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