For the UN's cancer research agency, a chance to redeem itself?
Facing mounting criticism from multiple sides, the embattled International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a semi-independent branch of the U.N.'s World Health Organization, has announced that it is searching for a new leader. The search is starting at a time when the agency has hit its lowest point yet, as Congress has ramped up investigations into the way IARC carries out its assessments of the carcinogenicity of everyday substances.
To save any vestiges of the agency's credibility, the new director needs to ensure that the agency carries out several key reforms, using all available scientific evidence to make its evaluations and communicating its findings clearly. At the moment, this simply isn't the case – and the agency's assessments have more often left the American public confused.
Since 1971, IARC has examined nearly 1,000 agents. It has been the subject of attacks for the way it carries out these evaluations – not surprising, given the fact that it has found that only one substance – caprolactam, a precursor to nylon – probably doesn't cause cancer.
The latest firestorm has arisen over IARC's assessment of glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide, as "probably carcinogenic" in 2015. IARC's opaque review process ended up causing two congressional committees to launch investigations into IARC over the past year. Most recently, the Republican chairmen of the House Science Committee and Subcommittee on Environment sent two letters to IARC expressing "concern" about the "scientific integrity" of IARC's assessments.
The letters were part of a wider probe launched last year into U.S. taxpayer funding for the agency, which has received more than $48 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly half of which was channeled to the assessments program.
Congress's renewed interest in IARC's operations comes in response to fresh allegations that shed more light on the agency's habit of twisting the facts and pursuing an activist agenda. According to the latest scoop, IARC removed and edited results from a draft of its evaluation of glyphosate that contradicted its conclusion that the substance is probably carcinogenic. During its assessment process, the agency also failed to take into account key unpublished data from the largest and most long-term study of herbicides' health effects. Sections of the study, which were recently published for the first time, showed no link between glyphosate and cancer. Yet because of IARC's inexplicable internal ban on reviewing unpublished studies, the data was left in the closet.
The exposés come at a time when IARC's skewed science has tilted the policy debate at the highest levels of government. Its assessment has not only led to a congressional investigation and mass litigation in the States, with glyphosate's manufacturer and U.S. farm organizations most recently suing California to stop state authorities from labeling cancer warnings on products containing the herbicide. The evaluation also nearly caused a blanket ban on sales of the herbicide in the European Union, with a slim majority of member-states having just barely approved a five-year renewal of glyphosate's license for use in the E.U. – this, despite the fact that the bloc's main regulatory bodies, like other agencies around the world, have already given the molecule a clean bill of health.
It's safe to say that IARC may not have intended such a disastrous outcome. But it's clear that the agency is wielding more power than it deserves, and it's about time it was cut down to size. Whoever is elected as the new director should take the blowback from the glyphosate monograph as a warning sign: the age of behind-closed-doors science is over.