Health and Human Services Secretary Should Halt Grants to UN Cancer Agency

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Yesterday, Congress passed an appropriations bill that kept funding intact for the United Nations body known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The House version of the bill originally included a provision that would have placed strings on U.S. funding for IARC. That language was stripped out at the last minute, unfortunately, so now the funding has been retained in the next fiscal year’s appropriations for the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education.

IARC produces cancer classifications for chemicals and other environmental factors which, while highly influential, generally constitute junk science.

Environmental activist groups are claiming victory, but the debate isn’t over. Congress can revisit the issue in the next appropriations cycle, and in the meantime, the Trump administration could eliminate 2019 funding administratively. The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, funds IARC via grant programs. Since Congress does not mandate IARC funding, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar should be able to stop them, reallocating funds to something usefullike finding a cure for cancer.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute details why IARC is so problematic in a paper released today. The paper demonstrates that not only should the HHS stop funding IARC, policymakers around the world should disregard its cancer classifications. Key points include:

IARC’s classification process is fundamentally flawed. IARC does not actually assess risk. It focuses on determining if a chemical or activity poses a “hazard,” which is just the first step in risk assessment. A hazard assessment simply considers whether at some exposure level and under some circumstance a substance might pose a risk. The next steps consider dose and exposure and whether actual human exposures are significant enough to matter.

Dr. Timothy Pastoor, CEO of Pastoor Science Communications, pointed out the absurdities of IARC’s hazard-focused approach at a congressional hearing earlier this year. He commented that the organization’s refusal to consider the potency and exposure levels of the agents they classify is a big problem. That explains why IARC’s classification system absurdly places plutonium and salty fish in the same “known carcinogen” category. Other “known carcinogens” include serious risks such as smoking tobacco alongside more innocuous things like exposure to wood dust, painting houses for a living, and eating processed meat. Pastoor further pointed out how exposure is crucial to understanding risk, using aspirin as an example. Aspirin is a valuable pain reliever at low exposures, but deadly at high ones. Yet, applying IARC’s faulty classification process, aspirin would be misleadingly deemed dangerous. Pastoor rightly concluded that IARC “needs to be significantly reformed or abolished.”

IARC working groups lack standards necessary to promote scientific rigor. The organization’s working groups are free to develop cancer classifications using their own operating procedures, rather than adhering to any firm operating procedures or scientific standards outlined elsewhere. That means working groups need not focus on the best quality studies, such as those with large sample sizes, sound methodologies, and strong associations that are biologically plausible. Nor are they directed to focus on research that has accessible data and results that have been replicated elsewhere. Instead, IARC working groups are free to, and often do, focus on small-scale studies with weak associations and implausible results. Basically, they are free to cherry-pick studies that serve predetermined biases of working group members.

Bias is a big problem for IARC working group members. Working group members are selected from those researchers who are most published in the field and supposedly most knowledgeable on the topic. This presents a selection bias, whereby researchers are able to validate their own studies and reputations by advancing IARC decisions based on their own research. These factors can make IARC decisions little more than the researchers’ self-fulfilling prophesies. Because of such obvious problems, some have suggested reforms such as balancing working groups by requiring that 50 percent of the members be researchers who lack any vested interest in the process.

IARC’s process lacks transparency. Rather than deploying basic scientific standards for transparency, IARC committees operate behind closed doors. Only working group members and select advisors and observers may attend, which contributes to accountability problems. 

IARC decisions are tainted by politics and conflicts of interest. The 2015 classification of the weed killer glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” offers an egregious example of a classification that appears politically driven. Known by the brand name Roundup, glyphosate was originally produced by Monsanto, a chemical company that has long been a major target of environmental activist groups. Unfortunately, IARC’s decision to dub it a probable carcinogen has not been unrelated to anti-pesticide and anti-Monsanto politics. IARC cherry picked studies to support a “probable carcinogen” label for glyphosate and ignored any contrary data, which was substantial. And the IARC working group enlisted Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) senior contributing scientist Christopher Portier to help as an “advisor” on the decision. Given EDF’s strident anti-chemical agenda, it should have no influence over what is supposed to be a purely scientific evaluation. Incidentally, Portier had a serious financial conflict of interest. You can read more here about that scandal.

To get the whole scoop, read my paper, U.S. Should Stop Funding the International Agency for Research on Cancer.