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

Why ECHA’s Finding That Glyphosate is Not a Carcinogen Matters

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) this week announced that its Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) confirmed that glyphosate is not a human carcinogen. According to ECHA:


“RAC concluded that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.”


This announcement adds to a long list of determinations from reputable regulatory authorities that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. In the past two years alone, the U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority, United Nations/World Health Organization, German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to the European Chemicals Agency, and New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority have all found that glyphosate poses no cancer risk.


Despite this extensive list of regulatory and public health agencies that have evaluated glyphosate and determined it is not a carcinogen, re-approval of glyphosate’s use in Europe has been hotly debated—primarily because of a 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).


In its report, known as a “Monograph,” IARC found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  But ECHA’s contradictory determination this week provides one of the best examples to date of the serious problems with IARC’s process and findings.


All of these determinations directly contradict and cast doubt on the 2015 International Agency For Research on Cancer’s (IARC)  that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”



But as legitimate as all of those findings are, the ECHA decision carries particular significance and is essentially the most thorough rebuke of IARC’s decision yet. Here’s why.


European Health Commissioner: ‘The last word belongs to the ECHA’


ECHA’s decision has been highly anticipated in Europe for months. The European Commission extended glyphosate’s pending approval late last year based solely on the hope that the ECHA’s opinion would resolve conflicting scientific views over its carcinogenicity classification.


As European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said in early 2016, “the last word belongs to the ECHA, which is why the Commission proposes to ask ECHA for its scientific assessment on the carcinogenicity of the herbicide and to extend the current approval of glyphosate until it receives ECHA’s opinion.”


ECHA Evaluation Presents an Apples-to-Apples Comparison with IARC Monograph


While most of the previous evaluations of glyphosate were risk assessments, both IARC’s assessment and ECHA’s recent evaluation were hazard assessments. As ECHA’s press release explains:


“RAC provides an independent scientific opinion on the hazard classification of the substance. The classification is based solely on the hazardous properties of the substance. It does not take into account the likelihood of exposure to the substance and therefore does not address the risks of exposure.”


A risk assessment takes a known hazard — which is anything that has the potential to cause harm, such as water — and evaluates its impact in real-world situations, taking into account such factors as dose/concentration, exposure pathways, and probability of exposure, to determine the likelihood that any given hazard will actually pose a risk of harm.


A hazard assessment, in contrast, is just the first in a series of steps to assess the danger a substance or activity might pose under a particular circumstance. For example, such an assessment would likely find any body of water— puddle, bathtub, river or ocean— poses a hazard because someone could conceivably slip on it, fall into it, or drown in it.


Like IARC, ECHA performed the latter type of evaluation of glyphosate and found there is no evidence the herbicide qualifies as a cancer hazard. The conflicting conclusions between IARC and ECHA are all the more significant considering ECHA even evaluated the same studies that IARC did, in addition to industry data that IARC refused to use. As the ECHA press release notes:


“The committee also had full access to the original reports of studies conducted by industry. RAC has assessed all the scientific data, including any scientifically relevant information received during the public consultation in summer 2016.”


The comparison of ECHA and IARC’s findings underscores the need for the IARC Monographs Program to improve how it conducts its evaluations of substances. Until its Monographs are based on transparent evaluations of all available scientific evidence, IARC’s findings are of little value.