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Mission

"By denying scientific principles, one may maintain any paradox." – Galileo Galilei

Conflicts of Interest Further Tarnish IARC’s Monographs Program & Classifications

The International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) Monographs Program has been plagued by transparency issues and conflicts of interest. The work of Chris Portier, who served as an invited specialist on IARC’s 112 Monograph on the herbicide glyphosate, and who now serves as a paid expert by trial lawyers seeking damages for alleged health effects from exposures to glyphosate, is a prime example.

Timeline of Activities

2014

  • In 2014, Portier was serving as a full member and chair of the IARC Advisory Group panel that reviewed and prioritized substances for subsequent IARC monographs.
  • The IARC Advisory Group, led by Portier, met in Lyon, France in April to deliberate on and create a list of recommended chemicals for IARC’s Monographs Program to prioritize in their evaluation of potential carcinogenic hazards. The group subsequently published an official report to “Recommend Priorities for IARC Monographs during 2015-2019.” Glyphosate was listed as a “medium priority.”

2015

  • The IARC Working Group on organophosphate insecticides and herbicides, which included glyphosate, met in March to evaluate the carcinogenic hazards of these substances. The group, on which Portier served, issued a press release on its official findings, which classified the herbicide glyphosate and insecticides malathion and diazinon as “probably carcinogenic” to humans (Group 2A) and two other insecticides as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans (Group 2B).

2017

  • IARC published the complete Monograph 112 on its classification of said herbicide and insecticides.

Why Portier’s Involvement and Influence is a Conflict of Interest

In 2014, Portier was also serving as a paid consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) – an environmental advocacy group.  This affiliation was apparently never seen as a conflict by IARC, even as Portier chaired the priority setting advisory group, which in many ways laid the groundwork for the myriad of issues created by IARC today.

Under the conflict of interest disclosure guidance of IARC and the World Health Organization, it’s hard to envision that Portier’s affiliation and/or financial arrangement with EDF would not be required to be disclosed before he served as chair of the IARC Advisory Group. Even if Portier’s involvement with EDF consisted of volunteering as a consultant, it should have been disclosed. But, this clear conflict of interest was not disclosed in 2014.

Nowhere in the IARC report is it stated that Portier was affiliated with EDF or that he was a paid consultant for law firms.

Now, only after being deposed on September 5, 2017 as an expert witness in this litigation, did we learn that Portier was actively working with EDF on several projects, including chemical exposures to pesticides and other chemicals as measured in special wristbands. Portier shrugged off any justification for disclosing this conflict of interest, saying the intent of the advisory group meeting was different:

“[…] because [the April 2014 meeting and subsequent report] was an advisory group, and because I was only doing work with the Environmental Defense Fund on issues related to air pollution and climate change and hydraulic fracking, in my opinion, I did not think it was a conflict of interest, and therefore, I did not list it.

If Portier’s statement is taken at face value, it would surely be a clear conflict requiring disclosure if he engaged in any activities as part of this IARC effort that dealt with substances (or processes when such substances could be used or released into the environment) as air pollutants (indoor or outdoor) or in processes associated with fracking.

Yet, here’s the list of substances in the report of the advisory committee that Portier chaired that have been reported to be air pollutants (outdoor and/or indoor), including many on EPA’s Hazardous Air Pollutant list.

While, the Advisory Group did not identify all of these as “high priority,” some were designated at that level.

Key Takeaway

Given these facts, the questions are:

  • Are these IARC priorities, and any subsequent IARC evaluations since 2014 based on these priorities, suspect?
  • Was there undue influence exerted by Portier to set certain priorities that benefited the organizations he was, or currently is, affiliated with – EDF and plaintiffs’ attorneys?

Unfortunately, this is long after the fact and there’s no way to tell for certain. But it may be the case.

With this disclosure, made in September 2017, the financial conflict is now in the open and known to both IARC and EDF.

But has either organization taken any action? Apparently, no. Not a peep yet from IARC, EDF or Portier on any corrective action with respect to notifying the public that while he chaired this IARC Advisory Committee in 2014, Portier was being paid by, and/or affiliated with, EDF. Nothing.

To this day, the IARC report on recommended priorities continues to list Portier’s affiliation as:

Christopher J. Portier [retired] (Chair)

National Center for Environmental Health and

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease

Registry

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Atlanta, GA
USA

Why hasn’t a corrective note been issued by IARC or appended to this publication spelling out this conflict?

Certainly, scientific consultants have every right to make their living however they choose. But, when a scientific consultant is appointed and serves in a position that is supposed to serve the public’s interests, and he or she fails to disclose financial conflicts of interest, it simply must be asked: Who really stands to benefit?

Something smells in Lyon and at EDF…and it’s not the cheese…