Congress: Trust But Verify Science

Scientists have ulterior motives and agendas like the rest of us.

Scientists are not infallible. At one time, scientists believed in witches and the geocentric theory of the universe. More recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration banned cyclamates as a carcinogen from 1970-1984 based on a flawed study of rats.

Members of Congress should be commended for subjecting government or government-funded science to careful scrutiny. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a case in point.

It is funded by the National Institutes of Health, but has generally escaped eagle-eyed congressional oversight. About two years ago, IARC classified an active ingredient in the most commonly used weed killer, i.e., glyphosate, as carcinogenic.

On August 8th, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR), sent a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins asking for an explanation of the failure to publish key data showing glyphosate was not carcinogenic. The letter was prompted by a Reuters investigation disclosing that IARC had excluded the data when it evaluated the chemical in March 2015.

The data was collected in an Agricultural Health Study (AHS) of cancer and other outcomes in a cohort of more than 89,000 farmers and their spouses from Iowa and North Carolina. The study began in 1993. It represents the most comprehensive investigation of the human health effects of applying glyphosate and other common agricultural activities. Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) conversant with the AHS, testified in a deposition that consideration of the AHS data would have altered IARC’s classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”

Mr. Blair claimed that the data, which was available two years before IARC’s review of the chemical, was not published because too voluminous for one paper. The NCI echoed that “space constraints” precluded publication of the AHS. According to IARC’s inane internal regulations, unpublished data cannot be considered in their reviews– no matter how compelling the evidence.

IARC conducts no studies itself. It relies exclusively on peer-reviewed scientific papers. It thus anchored its classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” primarily to studies involving lab tests on rodents. Several independent statisticians interviewed by Reuters were dumbfounded that the AHS was not published.

Complementing Congressman Gowdy’s oversight, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked Dr. Collins, as well as Dr. Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), to review the AHS and publish the data on the effects of glyphosate and other pesticides.

The oversight is long overdue. Former OGR Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) commenced scrutiny of NIH’s support for IARC last September. He then sent a letter to Dr. Collins asking why the NIH continues funding the organization. It was already the source of growing contention among certain US officials regarding its review and classification of substances. Chaffetz sent a follow-up letter in January demanding access to relevant IARC employee communications. But the probe has yet to unearth an explanation for IARC’s record over four decades of finding that only one of approximately 1,000 substances assessed—a nylon ingredient—was “probably not” likely to cause cancer.

That is circumstantial evidence that IARC has ulterior motives that influence its work. Senator Inhofe noted in his letter, in the case of glyphosate, that false positives could cripple important sectors of the economy such as agriculture and food production.

Sunshine is the best of disinfectants. Congress should continue its scrutiny of NIH’s funding of IARC until it is satisfied its chemical assessments are not skewed to advance a hidden agenda.

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