Conflicts of interest cause embarrassment in cancer risk assessments

Conflicts of interest cause embarrassment in cancer risk assessments

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 23, October, 2017

TWO YEARS AGO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an advisory body to the World Health Organisation (WHO), published an apparently damning report on glyphosate, one of the most widely-used herbicides around the world, and marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand. This was extensively reported, for example by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US (Glyphosate herbicide linked to cancer - IARC World Health Organization assessment).

The IARC put glyphosate in Group 2A of its classification, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen. This was commented on by the Scientific Alliance at the time (Pesticides and Health) and I’ll take the liberty of quoting two important expert comments from it:

Professor Alan Boobis of Imperial College said in part “The IARC process is not a risk assessment. It determines the potential for a compound to cause cancer, but not the likelihood... The UK Committee on Carcinogenicity has evaluated possible links between pesticide exposure and cancer on several occasions. It has found little evidence for such a link.”

And Dr Oliver Jones of RMIT University, Melbourne, raises some other interesting points: “People might be interested to know that there are over 70 other things IARC also classifies as ‘probably carcinogenic’, including night shifts. In the highest category of known carcinogens are ‘alcoholic beverages’ and ‘solar radiation’ (sunlight) – along with plutonium. So yes, pesticides can be dangerous, but [so] are many other common things which are also dangerous in sufficient amounts or over long periods of time – the dose makes the poison.”

Nevertheless, this supposed condemnation of a widely-used pesticide heightened the intensity of existing campaigns, with groups such as the Pesticides Action Network probably believing that they had a good chance of removing an iconic crop protection chemical from the market, following their successful campaign against neonicotinoids.

It certainly began to be removed from certain shelves, although one particular UK retailer’s action highlighted some ostensible hypocrisy (Waitrose bans sale of weedkiller used on its own land). A spokesman had to tread a fine line in pointing out that the company used glyphosate on its own Leckford Estate for very specific purposes, but had withdrawn it from retail shelves ‘to reflect customer demand’.

Of greater consequence are moves in the European Parliament for a complete ban on the chemical. The Parliament, despite its apparently democratic credentials, seems to have been heavily swayed by the anti-pesticide lobby and also to have ignored the advice of EU scientific advisers. EFSA disagreed with the findings of IARC and more recently the European Chemicals Agency also gave its opinion that glyphosate does not present an unacceptable risk to human health, to the huge disappointment of PAN and others. Not that this will stop MEPs doing whatever they are set on doing.

However, this week, two rather worrying pieces of news have emerged, not that you will necessarily have seen them, because they have not been widely reported. First, on October 18, The Times published an article under the headline Weedkiller scientist was paid £120,000 by cancer lawyers. While this would most likely have been front-page news if a company such as Monsanto had been seen to try to influence regulators, in this case Christopher Portier, an adviser to the IARC, had been paid $160,000 by the law firm representing cancer sufferers suing Monsanto.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t worry about conflicts of interest: everyone would behave entirely ethically and give purely objective evidence to anyone who asks. But the world is far from perfect and, as public trust in experts has fallen, so rules have been put in place to ensure transparency and at least give everyone a clear picture of the interests of the person giving an opinion. Often, any whiff of lack of impartiality is grounds for exclusion from consideration.

Dr Portier nailed his colours to the mast by writing an open letter to the Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, in November 2015 arguing that EFSA’s findings should be disregarded. Unfortunately, he failed to disclose his earnings from the law firm, Lundy & Lundy. If he had been arguing that EFSA was right and that the IARC should be ignored and had received money from Monsanto, he would doubtless have been crucified.

Even more worrying was a piece carried by Reuters on 19 October, which I haven’t yet seen in any other media: In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out ‘non-carcinogenic’ findings. To quote the opening sentence: “The World Health Organization’s cancer agency dismissed and edited findings from a draft of its review of the weedkiller glyphosate that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer”.

This behaviour is very disturbing. It is worth quoting further from the Reuters’ story: “One effect of the changes to the draft, reviewed by Reuters in a comparison with the published report, was the removal of multiple scientists’ conclusions that their studies had found no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals. In one instance, a fresh statistical analysis was inserted - effectively reversing the original finding of a study being reviewed by IARC. In another, a sentence in the draft referenced a pathology report ordered by experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It noted the report “firmly” and “unanimously” agreed that the “compound” – glyphosate – had not caused abnormal growths in the mice being studied. In the final published IARC monograph, this sentence had been deleted.”

Neither the IARC nor any of the contributing scientists approached would answer any questions from Reuters. Unlike EFSA, which shows the stages of its deliberations leading up to its final opinion, the IARC process is opaque and keeping of drafts is discouraged. This would matter less if these critical changes – for which no-one will take responsibility – had not come to light.

The IARC claims to select scientists for its working groups on the basis of “their expertise and the absence of real or apparent conflicts of interest.” Well, they may try to occupy the moral high ground, but they have singularly failed in this instance. The evidence points to a certain outcome being desirable, despite any evidence that might contradict it.

If this was the behaviour of a private sector company, there would be a scandal, but the likelihood of change in the IARC is minimal at best. In the meantime, we have the prospect of MEPs voting virtuously to deprive farmers of one of their most useful and least toxic pesticides. To put it mildly, this is depressing.

Martin Livermore writes for the Scientific Alliance, which advocates the use of rational scientific knowledge in the development of public policy. To subscribe to his regular newsletter please use this link.

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