It's Time To Stop Using Simplistic Hazard Classifications For Carcinogen Claims

By Hank Campbell — Nov 02, 2016
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was founded with a noble goal - to put an end to environmental claims based on weak observational anecdotes, like Rachel Carson claiming that she knew people who sprayed DDT in their basement and died (1) or that cranberries were going to poison everyone.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was founded with a noble goal - to put an end to environmental claims based on weak observational anecdotes, like Rachel Carson claiming that she knew people who sprayed DDT in their basement and died (1) or that cranberries were going to poison everyone.

Yet in recent years they have become complicit in just that. Their mission is to identify the causes of cancer, known as hazard identification, and not make suggestions about the degree to which each carcinogen presents a risk to public health, yet they have begun to do that all of the time. When they bizarrely claimed that eating sausage was as hazardous as smoking (a Group 1 carcinogen), they damaged their credibility with the public likely beyond repair. And I noted it was because they routinely use the term "risk" - 38 times just in their Q&A on meat. Cell phones, glyphosate, you name it and this has become routine for them. How did it come to be? In last year's "IARC: Diesel Exhaust & Lung Cancer", based on their 2012 assessment of diesel exhaust, I analyzed how IARC intentionally chose working group members that were certain to make biased conclusions. A big part of the reason, I noted, was that Dr. Chris Portier, whose title was officially Chairman of the IARC Working Group, had a title that he did not have to declare a conflict of interest - consultant for Environmental Defense Fund.

He created a landscape where anyone who had ever consulted for industry was biased and therefore could not participate, but his work for an activist group was exempt from even being disclosed - only industry funding was a concern. How convenient for him. (2) How endemic is the problem? No one can be sure, because the one government agency not in favor of transparency about its work is IARC. They have told participating scientists not to comply with any requests about IARC inner workings unless forced to by court order. IARC says they own all of the material and that scientists should destroy any notes related to the creation of the monographs. 

The problem is not just an activist at IARC who is promoting an ideological agenda, it is the classification system itself. As Boobis, et al. note in a recent Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology paper, the system is tailor-made for lawsuits and shoddy policy but can't really inform the public or policymarkers about potential harm. One of the ways to automatically get on California's Proposition 65 warning list is to be found carcinogenic by IARC. (3) But prior to their lowered classification on coffee, which anyone who knows the U.N. knows was done after the backlash on hot dogs caused people to lose faith in them, there was only one compound that they believed was safe. (4)

That was not the original mission of IARC. The original mission of the group was solely to determine hazardous substances and then the assumption was further risk studies would be done. Everyone knows the famous phrase of Paracelsus; the dose makes the poison. Yet risk studies are often not done, hazard claims stand alone. As I noted about Prop 65 and California, the story ends with an IARC claim about hazard, risk studies are forgotten and lawsuits begin, even if risk is negligible. Aspartame is included on that coffee mug we give away to donors in Note 4 below because it can be toxic - if you drink 7,000 diet sodas a day. IARC leaves that part out of their determinations, even though they throw around the word "risk" all of the time with media briefings. They never calculate risk. Instead, chemicals with 7 orders of magnitude difference in the dose required to cause cancer can be placed in the same category. That means to IARC, 1 is the same as 10,000,000.

If you are unfamiliar, here is the classification scheme that is now used for so much malevolence by environmental groups:

Group 1: The agent is carcinogenic to humans

Group 2A: The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans

Group 2B: The agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Group 3: The agent is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans

Group 4: The agent is probably not carcinogenic to humans.

Any expert in human biology knows meat in moderation is fine, but as the Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology authors note, if you use IARC classification of meat (Group 1) as your guide, then logically mustard gas (also Group 1) in moderation must also be fine. But they are only the same because to IARC 1 is equal to 10,000,000. Of course they are not the same in risk, mustard gas will kill you and bologna won't.(5)

We're living longer than previous generations, and that is thanks to science and medicine but it's also due to mitigating the potential risks of chemicals and behaviors that really are dangerous, like smoking (Group 1, with sausage.) Yet simplistic IARC claims have recently led to wealth for environmental lawyers and not much benefit for the public - their findings lead to spurious science claims based on animal, in vitro and in silico tests claiming cancer. When those are not producing the desired result, epidemiological meta-analyses substitute and suggest correlation and causation. A simple scheme that was originally designed to home in on cancer causes so that real study could begin is now automatically getting chemicals banned. It has become the default for risk policy in government even though IARC does not determine risk.

We need to know what is really dangerous - to separate environmental health scares from true health threats. IARC is instead now nothing more than a public relations tool for activist fundraising.


(1) Regardless of the shoddy science -  in the Science review, Professor IL Baldwin compared her book to a "prosecuting attorney's impassioned plea for action against" chemicals despite their benefits - her impact is the dream scenario of anti-science activists even today. That Baldwin was a professor of agricultural bacteriology at University of Wisconsin and chairman of the Committee on Pest Control and Wildlife Relationships of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, and therefore an actual expert, has been dismissed by her descendants.

To her credit, she wanted GMOs, which would get her thrown out of the modern environmental movement. 

(2) And got his brother Kenneth placed on the hastily-called EPA glyphosate Scientific Advisory Panel, created after IARC declared it a carcinogen. Nonetheless, EPA was forced to exonerate the pesticide, though they have wisely postponed their final report again - this time until after the U.S. election. The administration likely does not want to enrage environmentalists and cause them to stay away from the polls. EDF now claims he does not work for them on pesticides, he only works for them on air pollution and global warming modeling, despite the fact that he was Director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - nothing to do with global warming.

(3) 30 years ago that at least had some legitimacy.

(4) What is incredibly hazardous and known to be toxic? Caffeine in coffee. IARC is bonkers.

We give these mugs free to donors but no one goes into a panic. If they were easily confused by hazard and risk, they wouldn't be donors here. Credit: Hank Campbell

(5) Marketing groups can also note it is safer to eat glyphosate than it is to eat a hot dog, thanks to IARC. You're welcome, Monsanto.

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