Congressional Oversight Weeds Out Corrupt International Junk Science

Published February 17, 2018

This may be the year when Congress finally cracks down on the corrupt World Health Organization. The last straw may be not what WHO did, but what it didn’t do.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has been investigating the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a unit of the WHO, amid accusations that IARC holds secret proceedings and conducts shoddy research to reach politically-motivated conclusions. Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has been threatening to withhold federal funding for IARC, twice asked IARC to testify at a hearing to explain itself. IARC refused to send an official to answer questions at a February 6 hearing. The agency has received more than $48 million in U.S. tax dollars via the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. is the WHO’s largest donor.

Smith’s request wasn’t just refused, it was dismissed with bureaucratic diplo-speak that could put its author in the running to be the next U.N. secretary general. IARC spokeswoman Véronique Terrasse told POLITICO Europe in November that IARC “will respond when we receive an official request through the proper channel.” IARC believes it is only accountable, if at all, to the U.S. State Department, and that any request must be directed at American representatives on IARC’s governing council.

Congress is asking questions because IARC’s findings on the carcinogenicity of certain chemicals, personal behaviors, and environmental factors often diverge from mainstream science. And its junk-science conclusions cannot just be ignored, because they go on to heavily influence policy, public opinion, and even legal actions.

For example, California might soon require coffee shops to post cancer warnings based on two IARC reports that concluded the acrylamide found in roasted coffee beans and the act of drinking very hot beverages can cause cancer. The agency’s widely-criticized 2015 allegation that red and processed meats are human carcinogens have been used to justify sin taxes.

Chairman Smith warned at the hearing that the “selective use of data and the lack of public disclosure raise questions about why IARC should receive any government funding in the future.” The committee heard testimony from experts at the EPA and U.S. National Cancer Institute about IARCs widely discredited “hazard-based” approach, focused only on the chemical’s dose, rather than a “risk-based” approach which takes into account actual exposure.

One of IARCs most disputed reports is highly suspect; its 2015 assessment declared glyphosate, the world’s most widely-used herbicide, is a “probable human carcinogen.” It’s the only major scientific organization to reach that conclusion. Subsequent studies, including a major review issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in December, found no link between glyphosate and cancer. Glyphosate is controversial because it’s the main herbicide used on several genetically engineered crops — called Roundup Ready — that have been developed to withstand the chemical without harming the plant. It was developed by Monsanto, the bête noire of the global environmental movement.

How did IARC reach such a different conclusion from so many leading institutions? In October, a Reuters investigation found that unknown officials at IARC made “significant changes and deletions” to a draft of the report. IARC deleted language from a draft report citing an EPA-ordered study which “firmly” and “unanimously” concluded that glyphosate did not cause abnormal growths in mice.

This deletion, and nine similar to it, were crucial because, as Reuters put it, IARC’s “conclusion was based on its experts’ view that there was “sufficient evidence” glyphosate causes cancer in animals. There was only “limited evidence” it could do so in humans.

Committee members also expressed unease over IARCs secret proceedings and lack of standard scientific protocols, such as peer review. “IARC monographs do not employ any independent outside peer reviews,” said Texas Republican Brian Babin. “Instead an IARC working group collaborates behind closed-doors to select data, analyze data, and reach conclusions. So, without any public engagement or independent scientific peer review, the working group acts as hand-in-hand with IARC staff as judges, juries, and executioners.”

Insularity can be a breeding ground for corruption. The committee is looking into the role of Christopher Portier who recommended that IARC evaluate glyphosate. He was chosen to serve as an “invited specialist” to the glyphosate working group. Now, court documents have revealed that Portier was hired by a law firm suing on behalf of glyphosate “victims” several days after the glyphosate monograph was issued.

According to news reports and Portier’s own admission, over the past two years Portier has earned more than $160,000 for his “expert testimony” on several glyphosate lawsuits. At the same time, he was active in trying to pressure the European Parliament and U.S. agencies not to publish favorable findings about glyphosate without disclosing this obvious conflict.

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: a public charity is refusing to answer questions by the charity’s largest donor about an unfolding scandal.

Global public health is too important to cede to a scandal-ridden organization behaving as if it is beyond not only reproach, but oversight. Congress should cut IARC funding to let the beneficiaries of our generosity across the world know that they are answerable to taxpayers through our representatives in Congress.

[Originally Published at the Washington Examiner]