On June 7, U.S. Representatives Lamar Smith, Andy Biggs, Neal Dunn and Frank Lucas sent a letter to Dr. Elisabete Weiderpass, the newly elected director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), requesting that she provide testimony in July regarding how she will manage issues of scientific integrity and transparency, which have plagued the IARC Monographs Program.
How Did We Get Here?
The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has been scrutinizing IARC’s Monographs Program since 2016. The agency has been widely criticized for its conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, and cherry-picked science, which has in turn misled consumers and regulators around the world regarding the safety of everyday household products and substances.
This fact is noted in Representatives Smith, Biggs, Dunn, and Lucas’ letter to Dr. Weiderpass, “The Monograph Programme has been a recipient of significant criticism from a wide range of individuals and establishments, including scientists, judges, and Members of the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, given the information collected and evaluated by the Committee, the way the Monograph Programme operated under Director Christopher Wild was an affront to scientific integrity and bred distrust and confusion in the marketplace and amongst government regulators.”
Congress has criticized the IARC Monographs Program for quite some time, but the taxpayer-funded organization has been less than receptive to the representatives’ concerns. Earlier this year, IARC snubbed a congressional request that the agency provide a witness to testify regarding the Monographs Program’s scientific integrity and transparency, just as it had done to previous requests from the congressmen. Without a representative from IARC, the U.S. House Science committee went ahead with a full committee hearing in February called In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review.
Dr. Weiderpass takes over the command of IARC in January 2019, but her response to the committee’s latest request could provide significant insight into how she plans to manage the embattled Monographs Program. In other words, will Dr. Weiderpass choose the status quo or reform?
The European Glyphosate Saga Continues
The European Parliament’s committee on pesticides (PEST) held a committee meeting on June 7 which featured commentary from U.S. scientist and longtime IARC collaborator Christopher Portier on pesticide review practices, with a specific focus on glyphosate. Portier faced sharp criticism from members of Parliament, most notably from British MEP Anthea McIntyre. She stated:
“We are here to ensure that we protect citizens, and I think all of us have that in mind. But we also need to make sure that we are taking a responsible attitude, maintaining a sense of proportion, and not causing alarm. My concern is that there is a desire amongst some people to base assessments of possible carcinogens … on hazard instead of risk. If we decided that we were going to ban all potentially [carcinogenic] substances, we would be banning coffee, we’d be banning champagne, we’d ban goulash and prosciutto and Belgian beer and frites, we wouldn’t allow people to go outside in the sunshine, and many products and activities would be banned. This is where we need to maintain a sense of proportion and actually understand that basing our decisions on a risk assessment is far more sensible and responsible than to take an attitude of anything that is potentially [carcinogenic] should be banned.”
However, the most eyebrow-raising moment from PEST’s meeting came from Portier himself. When questioned about conflicts of interest, Portier said “at the time of the IARC monograph meeting I had no conflict of interest in my opinion. My only source of income was my retirement and the work I was doing one day a week for the Environmental Defense Fund on air pollution and climate change.”
Portier then went on to state:
“If you ask me today if I have a financial conflict of interest with regard to glyphosate, the answer would be yes. I clearly now have a financial conflict of interest with regard to glyphosate because I have been consulting on that issue.”
However, let us not forget that in 2014 Portier was not only a paid consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) but also 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 2014 to deliberate on and create a list of recommended substances for IARC’s Monographs Program to prioritize for 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.” One year later, an IARC Monograph Working Group determined glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans (Groups 2A). Portier served as an “invited specialist” in that Working Group.
It’s hard to imagine how neither Portier nor IARC could see that working as a paid consultant for an environmental advocacy group while serving as the chair of the priority-setting IARC advisory group is a conflict of interest. In fact, this conflict of interest is a clear violation of IARC and the World Health Organization’s disclosure guidance policies. In typical IARC fashion, this was not disclosed in 2014.
In fact, only after being deposed on Sept. 5, 2017, as an expert witness in 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.”
The irony here is that in Portier’s closing statement at the PEST meeting, he declared that “anyone participating in the review of a pesticide should be closely evaluated for financial conflicts of interest.” Considering Portier’s background, it seems that when he says “anyone” he means anyone but himself.