At the end of June, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published the results of Monograph 122, which included evaluations of β-picoline and four different acrylates. And even though no regulatory authority classifies acrylates as a human carcinogen, the Monograph 122 working group determined all four acrylates evaluated — methyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, and trimethylolpropane triacrylate (TMPTA) — are Group 2B, or “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The findings are the latest example of questionable determinations that can be traced to the Monographs Program’s many fundamental flaws.
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
When an IARC Monographs working group convenes, it is usually an affair involving a very like-minded contingent. IARC typically appoints working group members who agree the substances being evaluated are carcinogenic hazards, and the members are flown to IARC headquarters in Lyon, France, for an all-expense-paid week in one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. Working group members are charged with reviewing select scientific papers before applying an antiquated hazard evaluation approach that was developed more than five decades ago.
Importantly, the general public is unaware of the critical differences between the hazard evaluations IARC conducts and risk assessments, most notably the fact that the former serves no real-world practical purpose. For instance, water itself is a hazard, while jumping into a pool without knowing how to swim is a risk. If you are a good swimmer, there is little risk in taking a dip in your pool. However, according to a hazard assessment like IARC’s, the pool is dangerous and should be avoided regardless of you using it safely or not.
Put another way, if a substance is determined to be a cancer hazard, that does not mean that there is any significant risk for developing cancer at the levels people are exposed to in today’s world. But IARC does not provide information on the actual amount of risk associated with relevant levels of exposures — which is a huge issue considering IARC doesn’t explain this to the public, either.
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that IARC working groups are accountable to no one. They determine what studies to exclude, what studies to include, and how to weigh and interpret the latter. This all occurs without any substantive external accountability. There is no independent scientific peer review of their analyses, rationales, justifications or decisions.
What are the Consequences?
As they say, history repeats itself. IARC’s evaluation of the carcinogenicity of acrylates is highly questionable, and faulty evaluations made in previous Monographs show that this could potentially have serious impacts on the lives of everyday Americans, as these products are key components of items such as paints, carpets, nail polish, cosmetics and countless other everyday items.
The global scientific consensus concurs that these substances are not carcinogenic to humans. Just like in its previous evaluations of substances such as coffee, hot beverages, glyphosate and cell phones, IARC’s evaluation of acrylates are outliers in the scientific community and its motives remain highly suspect.
Despite overwhelming evidence to these substances’ safety, plaintiffs have filed litigation against companies that manufacture the substance in question based on IARC’s determinations. Additionally, IARC Monographs working group members often act as expert witnesses in these cases.
High-profile cases such as glyphosate (2A) demonstrate how IARC’s unsubstantiated determinations have subjected companies to unwarranted financial burden. These cases also highlight how the agency has perpetuated mass confusion amongst consumers by conflating hazard with risk.
It isn’t hard to understand why some of the most vocal defenders of maintaining the status quo at IARC also have served as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs’ bar. In the case of acrylates, let’s just hope that sound science and logic can prevail, despite the IARC Monographs Program’s unacceptable classification and questionable motives.