From cherry-picking and deleting scientific data to propagating confusion amongst consumers, the last four years have seen the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC’s) Monographs Program become especially embroiled with allegations of misconduct and adhering to unscientific practices. While IARC was no stranger to controversy in the past, the fact that 2014 marked the point when its Monographs Program became the subject of intense, global scrutiny is not a coincidence – 2014 also marked the beginning of Kurt Straif’s role as the head of the Monographs Program. Since then, Straif has been a central figure in many of IARC’s controversial moments. Under his leadership, IARC’s Monographs Program has issued some of its most notorious determinations, stirring questions about the methodologies and true intent of Straif’s program.
It is important to note that IARC’s rulings on a substance’s carcinogenicity often contradict the findings of respected regulatory agencies and lauded scientific organizations from around the world. IARC is an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), which has markedly distanced itself from IARC’s conclusions in the past.
Most noticeably, this occurred when the Monographs Program classified red meat as a carcinogen, placing it in the same category as substances such as cigarettes, plutonium and asbestos – stoking panic in consumers and spurring confusion amongst regulatory agencies. At the time, WHO said in a statement, “The health risks of processed meat are vastly different of those cigarettes and asbestos,” and that “Meat provides a number of essential nutrients and, when consumed in moderation, has a place in a healthy diet.” According to an insider at WHO, IARC’s classification of red meat sparked discussion at WHO headquarters about “…needing to rein IARC in.”
The majority of IARC’s criticism stems from the fact that it assesses substances based on hazard, not risk, and provides the public with little to no information about how these two assessments differ when IARC publishes its monographs. A hazard identifies anything that has the potential to cause harm, while a risk is the likelihood that a substance will cause harm. Being able to discern this stark difference is essential to understanding whether something is potentially harmful.
IARC’s lack of distinction over hazard-vs-risk has become significantly more blurred to the public since Kurt Straif became the head of IARC’s Monographs Program. When faced with criticism or concerns, Straif himself often acts as the cheerleader for IARC’s hazard assessment, demonstrating an unwavering conviction for IARC’s methodologies and providing ambiguous answers about how IARC’s determinations are relevant to daily life.
For instance, in an interview with Euronews, Straif was asked how IARC can claim that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen when a joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/WHO panel gave the substance a clean bill of health. Straif replied that IARC is the authority to classify cancer substances worldwide and that the FAO/WHO panel only evaluated “a very narrow angle of exposure.” These statements gloss over the important fact that IARC’s classification was based solely on a hazard assessment and not a comprehensive risk assessment. Furthermore, Straif implied that if another organization disagrees with IARC’s determination, then that differing assessment is simply erroneous.
When IARC fails to clearly communicate to consumers what a hazard assessment is, and then publishes that a substance is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” it is unrealistic to expect anything other than undue concern and the perception of risk.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Monographs Program under Straif’s leadership has been accused of ignoring and altering essential data to achieve its conclusions, simply publishing reports that a substance is likely carcinogenic – without clearly explaining the nuances of the evaluation compared to assessments conducted by other organizations – is an irresponsible protocol.
When IARC publishes an attention-grabbing determination with little to no context on its real-world implications, it should not be the responsibility of consumers to pore over scientific literature and accurately come to their own conclusions, nor is it the responsibility of regulatory agencies to essentially prove IARC wrong.
This expectation, as implied by Straif, is emblematic of the serious issues that plague IARC’s Monographs Program. Herein lies one of the glaring flaws at IARC that must be addressed if the agency hopes to reform its embattled Monographs Program.