The global chemicals industry has a long history of working with multilateral institutions like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Their missions are extremely important – to maintain international peace and security and to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. Like millions of other stakeholders, we want to see these organizations succeed.
The goal of the chemical industry’s international engagement is to help ensure chemicals can be produced and used safely and sustainability around the globe. At the core of our engagement with international institutions is a firm belief in, and unwavering commitment to, sound science. We believe polices designed to protect the health and safety of everyone on the planet must be based on credible, unbiased, and transparent scientific investigation. Regrettably, in recent years, a commitment to sound science on the part of some international organizations has fallen by the wayside.
One such example that has proven especially troublesome during the last decade is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). IARC is the principal agency focused on cancer research, yet it has been widely criticized by scientists, government agencies, and other informed stakeholders for its lack of transparency, conflicts of interest, and obstacles to stakeholder input. One of the agency’s core elements, the IARC Monographs program, does not consider the full weight of scientific evidence and regularly relies on poor-quality studies in determining its conclusions.
These assessments not only lack scientific integrity, they often mislead the public because they are based on hazard, which does not take into account exposure or real-world scenarios. A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm, while risk is the likelihood that a hazard will cause harm.
Although IARC uses the word “risk” in its monograph titles, their actual aim is to “identify cancer hazards even when risks are very low at current exposure levels.” The distinction causes misinterpretation of the conclusions, leading to sensationalized headlines and confusion among policy makers. For example, in 2015, when IARC announced that it had classified consumption of processed meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” bacon lovers everywhere suddenly found themselves eating something classified alongside plutonium and mustard gas. Red meat, a staple of diets around the world, became a cancer risk despite IARC itself admitting their decision was based on “limited evidence.”
Of the more than 1,000 Monographs released since the early 1970s, on everything from chemicals to red meat to cell phones to sunshine, only one has ever been ruled not to be a cancer risk. Even coffee – the second most widely consumed beverage in the world behind only water – was classified by IARC as “possibly carcinogenic,” despite the overwhelming evidence against this determination. (IARC later downgraded its warning).
More concerning than IARC’s heedless designation that virtually everything causes cancer, is the direct effect the IARC monographs program can have on national regulations, companies, and consumers.
Take, for example, Monograph 112 on glyphosate. As a recent investigation by Reuters unveiled, the glyphosate Monograph working group chair Dr. Aaron Blair withheld data that found no evidence linking glyphosate exposure to cancer. Under oath, Blair admitted that had IARC considered the study, it likely would have changed its conclusion on glyphosate. Fast forward to today – because IARC published their evaluation claiming glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a worldwide ripple affect can be felt.
For instance, in California glyphosate will officially be listed as a chemical known to cause cancer. According to the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 and corresponding Labor Code Section 6382(b)(1), “substances listed as human or animal carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer” shall be published on the Prop 65 list, which would limit the chemicals use in California. Why should California base these decisions on a body and program that failed to consider all relevant data?
In Europe, France announced their opposition to reauthorize glyphosate, going against numerous government agencies around the world that conclude glyphosate is safe, including Europe’s chief scientific organizations, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the Food Safety Agency (EFSA). France’s decision flies in the face of the sound science that concludes glyphosate is not a carcinogen and ignores the significant, demonstrated shortcomings identified in IARC’s flawed classification of glyphosate.
These are just two of many cases that illustrate IARC’s impact on a global scale. Despite calls from organizations and governments around the world to reform the Monographs program, IARC leaders continue not to abide by fundamental principles of science when forming conclusions, bringing into question their scientific integrity.
It is here that the United States must lead on the global stage, as the United States is a significant funder of IARC and the monographs program. Better oversight of this U.S. funding and engagement, coupled with enhanced U.S. leadership in calling for IARC reform, will be essential in addressing the significant and systemic flaws outlined above.
To this end, EAGL’s efforts in encouraging and engaging American leadership to ensure that our workers and businesses are not adversely affected by actions taken by international institutions is paramount. American leadership is indispensable to global progress and is even more necessary when considering reforming international organizations to create a more just and equitable international system.
IARC’s research flaws can have real-world impacts. It is clear that IARC reform is necessary, but setting the precedent among policy makers and the public as to what constitutes sound science is critical. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, IARC assessments will continue to result in unjustified public policy decisions, public confusion, and economic harm.
About the American Chemistry Council (ACC)
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products and services that make people’s lives better, healthier and safer. The business of chemistry is a $768 billion enterprise and a key element of the nation’s economy. It is among the largest exporters in the nation, accounting for fourteen percent of all U.S. goods exports, while chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development.