WHO probed for linking bacon, coffee with cancer
A World Health Organization (WHO) cancer agency is under scrutiny for allegedly causing too many public health scares.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publishes research that shapes global lifestyle trends.
Their reports have branded coffee, mobile phones, processed meat and the weed killer glyphosate – among other things – as dangerous products that cause cancer.
However, United States (U.S.) government officials have now called for an official review, questioning how much evidence there is to categorize these items as carcinogens.
An aide to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform told Reuters that National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials have agreed to give an in-person briefing to the committee.
It comes after questions were raised by lawmakers over its grants to the IARC, a semi-autonomous part of the WHO based in Lyon, France.
The hearing will be in private, with NIH officials answering questions from committee investigators, the aide said.
The committee is working with the NIH to schedule the briefing soon, the aide said, but no date has yet been set.
The briefing comes after the committee’s chairman added his voice to growing concerns among some senior US lawmakers about the way IARC reviews and classifies substances.
Its critics, including in industry, say it is sometimes too quick to conclude that substances might cause cancer, causing unnecessary health scares. It defends its methods as scientifically sound.
In a September 26 letter to NIH director Francis Collins, Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz describes IARC as having “a record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies’ and asks why the NIH, which has a $33 billion annual budget, continues to fund it.
“IARC’s standards and determinations for classifying substances as carcinogenic, and therefore cancer-causing, appear inconsistent with other scientific research, and have generated much controversy and alarm,” Chaffetz wrote.
The NIH confirmed in an email to Reuters that it had received Chaffetz’s letter and “will respond directly to the committee”.
The WHO referred Reuters to IARC for comment. A spokeswoman for IARC told Reuters that Chaffetz’s letter contained ‘misconceptions’ which IARC’s director, Chris Wild, has sought to address in a letter of his own to the NIH director.
Wild’s letter, dated October 5 and copied via email to Reuters on Thursday, rejects Chaffetz’s criticisms and says IARC’s classifications, known as ‘monographs’, are “widely respected for their scientific rigour, standardised and transparent process and … freedom from conflicts of interest’.
Wild also defends IARC’s evaluation of coffee and disputed Chaffetz’s description of it as a ‘retraction’. IARC’s previous assessment of coffee as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ was updated in June this year, when IARC said it had found ‘no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect’.
“The (coffee) report in 2016 was not a ‘retraction’ but a re-evaluation based on an additional 25 years of scientific evidence,” Wild said.
Chaffetz, however, asks the NIH to detail its standards for awarding grants and the vetting and oversight of grantees.
It also asks for full disclosure of NIH funds to IARC or money spent in relation to IARC’s activities.
Questions over grants awarded by NIH to IARC could put a significant portion of IARC’s funding at risk.
IARC’s resources are relatively modest. Its 2014 revenue was about 30 million euros ($33 million).
In his letter, Chaffetz’s cites the NIH’s grant database as showing that it has given IARC more than $1.2 million so far this year. The database also shows that since 1992, NIH grants to IARC have totalled some $40 million.
The American Chemistry Council also joined those voicing concern, issuing a statement following Chaffetz’s letter accusing IARC of “a long history of passing judgment on substances through a fundamentally-flawed process that yields questionable results”.
“We welcome the interest of the House Committee … and hope it will shed light on the close and somewhat opaque relationship between IARC and NIH, including the use of taxpayer dollars and resources to support IARC’s activities,” it said.
IARC is also in dispute with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and United Nations and United States regulators over glyphosate, a widely used weedkiller developed by Monsanto.
IARC says glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic’, while EFSA and several other regulators say it isn’t.
This dispute prompted Robert Aderholt, chairman of the U.S. congressional Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, to write in June to NIH’s Collins questioning funding of IARC.
In that letter, Aderholt says IARC’s conclusions “appear to be the result of a significantly flawed process’ and adds that ‘some in academia have raised questions about the quality of the science and the transparency of the process”.
The glyphosate dispute also held up a decision on whether to relicense the product for use in Europe.
*Adapted from DailyMailUK online