Diary

When Dishonesty Trumps Science

Blue Man Group performs with paint during a media preview on Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Singapore where they will start their world tour to mark the founding of their group 25 years ago. Blue Man Group was started by three friends in New York in 1991 as a way to celebrate the human spirit through music, science, art and theater. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Credibility is sacrosanct in the world of scientific research where one mistake or mischaracterization can forever tarnish an organization’s reputation – leaving the public confused and without proper guidance on matters of health and safety. In this light, it is remarkable that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is still alive and kicking – despite numerous retractions and countless rebukes from international peers amid doubts about IARC’s scientific practices and integrity. But now, a Congressional hearing has shed light on the use of US taxpayer money for IARC’s funding, bringing some much needed oversight that has been missing from the rogue agency for decades.

US lawmakers are right to do so, because IARC’s assessments of supposedly carcinogenic substances usually contradict the general scientific consensus, from coffee to cellphones. In fact, in 2011 IARC classified cell phone radiation as a Group 2B carcinogen, or “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in a monograph. This ongoing series is the agency’s flagship publication format – one that the American Council on Science and Health criticized as obsolete, particularly in relation to how it evaluates dose and exposure.

IARC claims that Working Groups of international experts consult all relevant sources of information and data as part of an analysis of a substance’s carcinogenic potential. If that’s the case, these “international experts” are highly selective in their source collection. Because two US government studies published last October have added to the growing body of evidence that normal cell phone use bears no detrimental effects on human health, contrary to IARC’s position. IARC’s findings are also in stark contrast to a 13-year-long Danish study published in 1995 which comprised over 400,000 cell phone users and found no credible link between use and a higher incidence of cancer rates.

The Danish study is among the largest to have ever been conducted and created a near-insurmountable wall of evidence given the scale and longevity of the research. In tandem with the US studies, which featured rats and mice emerging essentially unscathed despite exposure to levels much higher than that of normal cell phone use, it seems IARC will soon be forced to admit the inaccuracy of its conclusions. It wouldn’t be the first such U-turn.

2016 saw a humiliating retraction of IARC’s 1991 finding that coffee is a human carcinogen, followed by the admission that the original findings were based on “inadequate evidence”. IARC subsequently completely reversed its conclusions, determining coffee might lead to a longer life, among other benefits. Such admissions of defeat are hardly surprising coming from an organization that assigns bacon the same carcinogenicity as plutonium. Be it fundamental incompetence or an out-of-touch classification system, it’s clear that IARC is in urgent need of scientific nuance.

However, if competence is already lacking at IARC, then a lack of scientific integrity is another issue altogether. IARC has a prolific history as the black sheep of cancer research, as their stances routinely fly in the face major scientific bodies. The Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR) reports that IARC often ignores the conclusions, studies, and sources used by regulatory bodies and reputable scientists. Instead, they regularly cite their own research and have even drawn conclusions on carcinogenicity using the opinions of only two of their own members, according to IARC Senior Toxicologist Kathryn Z. Guyton.

Furthermore, a Reuters investigation found IARC cherry-picking data and selectively editing a monograph to claim that glyphosate, the active chemical found in many weed killers, is carcinogenic. In spite of disagreement from major international scientific bodies the world over, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, as well as its parent organization, the WHO, IARC listed glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen”. To no one’s surprise, Reuters met a wall of silence upon contacting IARC and the scientists of the Working Group about the revisions and edits.

This lack of transparency is also a major reason why Washington is considering to withdraw funding for IARC. The debacle has landed IARC a congressional hearing, where GOP lawmakers slammed the group for its “shoddy work”, determined it was guilty of “manipulation of scientific data”, thereby whipping up unjustified public fear against the industry, and threatening the livelihoods of American farmers.

Since 1985, the US has sent $22 million to the cancer agency’s monograph program, according to a letter sent to IARC director Chris Wild by the Committee’s chairman prior to the hearing. US funding, accounting for two-thirds of the program, was earnestly called into question. In a separate letter, Congressmen Lamar Smith and Andy Biggs raised concern over the culture of secrecy at IARC – accusations echoed by the CAPHR, which has condemned IARC’s refusal to grant Freedom of Information requests and the curious requirement for scientists involved in monographs to sign confidentiality agreements.

Clearly, IARC is far from the authoritative voice for all matters of carcinogenic potential in everyday substances it purports to be. If the agency’s previous admissions of culpability haven’t been enough, the conclusions of the recent Congressional hearing should make abundantly clear that the public would be well advised to look elsewhere for a credible source. Ignoring IARC and its public fear tactics goes a long way in restoring scientific integrity in consumer protection, because as overwhelming evidence shows, cancer does not lurk behind every door.