The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a world authority in cancer research, is under siege by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry, as well as pro-industry Republican lawmakers. This push comes after IARC found glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, to be a probable human carcinogen.
Last month, President Donald Trump publicly announced his budget plan for the fiscal year 2018. The proposed budget would eliminate roughly $6 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 20 percent of the agency’s total budget. IARC, which works to classify the carcinogenicity of chemicals and substances, relies heavily on NIH funding.
Mr. Trump’s slashes to the budget happen to coincide with an industry-backed smear campaign against IARC. Launched earlier this year by the chemical lobby, which represents the interests of Monsanto, the Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research portrays IARC as a scaremonger that confuses the public about the hazards associated with chemicals and substances.
Some Republican lawmakers in the U.S. are also carrying the torch for industry interests. In January, U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called for an investigation into whether taxpayers should be funding IARC’s work.
Monsanto Attacks Against IARC: The “Most Aggressive” in Years
The effort by Monsanto to discredit IARC began in 2015 after the agency released a report on glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer. The report classified glyphosate as a Category 2A herbicide, which means it is a probable human carcinogen.
The IARC report was based, in part, on glyphosate exposure studies conducted in several different countries, which traced the health implications from exposure to glyphosate starting in 2001.
According to the report, glyphosate exposure causes DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, as well as genotoxic, hormonal, and enzymatic effects in mammals. The cancers most associated with exposure to glyphosate were found to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other hematopoietic cancers.
This finding prompted hundreds of people from across the U.S. to file Roundup cancer lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging exposure to Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The criticism of IARC by Monsanto and its lobbying interests was swift and severe following the publication of the glyphosate report. The response reminded IARC director Christopher Wild of the attacks the agency was subjected to in the early 2000s when IARC classified secondhand smoke as a cause of cancer.
“Since that time, this is probably the most aggressive that it’s been,” Wild said recently in an interview. He says the criticism is linked to the agency’s classifications “where there’s a very strong commercial interest.” Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, has netted the company billions in profit.
The pro-industry attacks and efforts by Monsanto to discredit IARC pose “a real risk,” Wild says, as big business and Republican lawmakers have cast IARC as fake news. “It plays into that populist view of experts telling us that everything is bad for us, and therefore let’s ignore all that information.”
But that information has been central to protecting public health for decades, even when Big Tobacco went to great lengths to subvert the agency. From the looks of things today, history may be repeating itself with Monsanto and the chemical industry now assuming the role of the tobacco industry.
Those critical of the IARC’s work say the agency creates misleading headlines about the dangers surrounding the everyday chemicals we use or the foods we eat. Since 1971, IARC has evaluated close to 1,000 chemicals and substances, of which, the agency has identified 400 as being possibly carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, or carcinogenic.
One talking point that the chemical industry is particularly fond of when discussing IARC is that the agency has only once found a chemical to “probably not” cause cancer. According to Wild, this statistic wrongly miscasts the agency as a doomsayer. In fact, more than half of the agents IARC has studied (over 500) are listed as “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans,” so it isn’t as if the agency is in the business of listing everything it studies as a carcinogen.
Wild also points out that IARC primarily studies agents that have already been shown to be problematic. IARC chooses agents for study based on scientific and epidemiological evidence that shows they may be causing cancer. The agency also takes into account how many people are exposed to agents when deciding what to study.
“We don’t look randomly at everything in the world. We look at things where there’s a body of scientific evidence that this is causing a problem. So you would expect a high proportion of agents that cause cancer,” says Wild.
Among the priorities for IARC to study in the next few years are bisphenol A, which is used in plastics; aspartame, an artificial sweetener; indium tin oxide, found in laptop display screens and cell phones; and e-cigarettes. Like glyphosate, all of these agents are profit generators for the companies that use them in their products, so you can be sure that industry will only continue its offensive against IARC.