Pesticides’ association with neurotoxicity, cancer and birth defects over the years have led to rigorous industry and regulatory agency testing and review.
So when a cancer-research agency unexpectedly declared that a commonly used herbicide - which for decades has been declared safe - now "probably" causes cancer, the impact hit hard.
Glyphosate — an herbicide with backyard and agricultural applications — has been widely used since in the 1970s in products such as Roundup. The chemical also is closely associated with genetically modified organisms because crops like corn and soybeans have been engineered to withstand Roundup.
A little more than a year ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), reviewed studies on glyphosate and concluded it’s a “probable human carcinogen.”
IARC’s findings “baffled” the scientific community, including regulators, Hank Campbell, president of the American Council on Science and Health, told Legal Newsline. ACHS was established in 1978 to combat “anti-science claims” made against agriculture, energy and pharma.
“This is a compound with no toxicological effects on humans and no biological pathway with which to cause harm that a panel using selected epidemiology papers nonetheless declared a cancer-causing agent," Campbell said. "They took papers that had people with various cancers and correlated that to the existence of glyphosate and then declared causation."
When IARC released its findings, Monsanto, the agrichemical company that manufactures Roundup, quickly defended its product and took issue with IARC conclusions.
In a recent blog post, Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy for the company, said IARC reached these controversial conclusions because of the "aggressive publicity and lobbying campaign initiated by IARC scientists, who are trying to convince regulators to replace the body of well-established science with IARC's flawed findings and biased perspectives."
Thousands of pages of data and hundreds of studies disagree with IARC, Charla Lord, a spokesperson for Monsanto, told Legal Newsline.
“No regulatory body in the world considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen,” Lord said. “And the European Union’s risk assessment on glyphosate has been one of the most thorough evaluations of an agricultural product ever conducted.”
Plaintiffs attorneys have already jumped on the study, with claims popping up across the country based on the IARC review. Firms have put out a call for plaintiffs, claiming they can prove Monsanto knew about the dangers of glyphosate and misled the public.
IARC, a branch of the World Health Organization, brings in scientists to review research on a substance to determine whether it could cause cancer in humans.
It has no regulatory authority; it measures hazard, not risk, meaning it doesn’t purport to take into account how likely it is for a person to contract cancer from food or chemicals they use
About seven months after it classified glyphosate, it put red meat in the same category.
EFSA concluded, “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans."
But that hasn't completely settled the debate.
The EU has a looming deadline to reauthorize the use of glyphosate in member countries, and the risk of cancer is highly relevant in its decision. If it decides not to renew the license, Roundup would be phased out of its stores. Monsanto could pursue a legal appeal if a decision isn't made by the June 30 deadline.
The EFSA conclusion was affirmed by last week by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA).
Last month, the Joint WHO/FAO Meeting on Pesticide Residues concluded again that glyphosate doesn’t pose a likely carcinogenic risk to humans who are exposed to it through their diet.
Major health effects linked to glyphosate haven’t been a concern to the EPA, James Aidala, a government relations consultant at Bergeson & Campbell in Washington D.C. who used to work for the EPA, told Legal Newsline.
“It’s a nice product,” he said. “They’ve evaluated it and determined that it may be a lot things but it doesn’t have a carcinogenic risk.”
The EPA is reviewing glyphosate again this year as part of its usual 15-year registration review process. A report is expected by the end of the year that will examine glyphosate’s effects on humans and the environment. It will likely focus more on ecological impacts, Aidala said.
The EPA released a preliminary report earlier this year in which, like EFSA, it said glyphosate doesn’t pose a significant cancer risk. The agency pulled back the report soon after it was released but it indicated that EPA staff think IARC’s review didn’t show a complete picture, which is a common complaint among critics of the agency and its research.
“What’s changed is all the regulatory bodies have to say what they think about IARC,” Aidala said.
As a result of regulators’ disagreement with IARC, “they’ll be under more scrutiny,” he said.
Aidala added that what can be lost in the inconclusive back-and-forth is that this is a big deal.
“It’s important because it’s very widely used," he said. "It’s important because biotechnology is supposed to be the future but it’s got to be not only commercialized but also accepted by the public.
“The story about this will continue to feed your bias. If you’re a critic, it shows you were right all the time. If you’re supportive ... this is the kind of silly, unscientific opinion that’s led to the difficulty of getting (GMOs) accepted.
“In a perfect world we could know who’s right and who’s wrong. … Therefore the debate continues.”
Glyphosate isn’t the only substance on which IARC and other scientific agencies are at odds.
Campbell said methods for classifying cell phones, red meat and diesel emissions also raised concerns.
“It causes a lot of panic — and raises groups who like to scare people a lot of money — and doesn't make anyone safer,” he said. “In modern times, IARC has a profound influence on public health policy at exactly the time they have taken less interest in scientific credibility. They used to be a rigorous, serious body but in recent years they have embraced epidemiology and public posturing.”
When IARC puts a panel together, it won’t call on experts from the industry — or those who have consulted for the industry, he said.
That leaves out a number of smart people in a field where consulting with the industry is the mark of a high-caliber academic, he added.
Leaving out industry studies also dismisses a substantial portion of relevant research.
“Obviously (regulatory agencies) also put the burden of proof on companies to prove something is safe," he said. "Companies must pay for studies to show that, not taxpayers. So if you say you won't allow industry studies, you leave out everything except academic epidemiology.”
Epidemiologists analyze the causes and effects of health and disease, identifying risk factors and preventative care. Campbell criticizes this method because he said it doesn’t show a definitive causal link between a behavior or substance and a disease, or a correlation.
“But IARC uses the word ‘risk’ all over (its) papers without ever calculating risk — and risk is what should be the concern," he said.
"We factor risk every day. Cars are obviously a hazard but we don't set the speed limit to 5 miles per hour because of that. We can measure parts per quadrillion so it is easy to find traces of glyphosate in anything. But that's one drop in 11,000,000 gallons of water. It cannot be harmful yet evidence of existence is used as reason for concern. That is homeopathy, not science.”