IARC: Under the Influence JON LUOMA / OnEarth Fall02
Jon Luoma has written for National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. His latest book, about the anatomy of an old-growth ecosystem in Oregon, is The Hidden Forest.
Is industry becoming an inside player at the world's leading research center on carcinogens?
In 1993, an officer of the Philip Morris corporation wrote a memo that laid out, in elaborate detail, a plan to influence a prestigious cancer research center. IARC -- the International Agency for Research on Cancer -- had undertaken a study on the health effects of secondhand smoke, and the memo prescribed ways to get the study delayed, diluted, or shelved. But there was a problem: IARC's reputation was extremely solid. "Our scientists go as far as to state that IARC is virtually unassailable," the author noted gloomily.
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Huff headed IARC's program on
Today, according to some scientists, that reputation is no longer so strong. These critics charge that IARC, an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), has begun inviting the input of scientists with direct and indirect financial links to the very industries that stand to lose or gain enormously from its findings. IARC has long been considered the premier research center for identifying carcinogens, and such a decision could undermine its credibility and, potentially, its science.
The critics include two former top officials of IARC itself. One of them is James Huff of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who headed IARC's program on evaluating carcinogens from 1977 until 1980. "There is a great deal more industry influence at IARC today than there used to be," Huff says simply. "And that's a great deal more than there should be."
Despite uncounted millions of hours of research and mountains of data, no one knows in complete detail how cancer forms. Somehow, the genetic code in cells goes haywire, and a cascade of processes that normally hold the developing disease in check fails. But science does know, beyond doubt, that some substances -- from asbestos to benzene to tobacco smoke -- can induce carcinogenesis, the birth of cancer.
When it comes to identifying these substances, no research center in the world has been as important or credible as IARC. In this country, its findings help shape rules protecting the public from carcinogens in food, drugs, and the environment. IARC's work is even more influential internationally, especially in poor countries that cannot afford sophisticated evaluations of their own.
IARC operates out of a modern fifteen-story office building in Lyons, France. The 270 people on staff study carcinogenesis and cancer prevention and track cancer worldwide. For each carcinogen evaluation, IARC convenes an international panel of experts to review existing research on a substance. The panel then writes a monograph ranking the substance according to its effect on humans, from not carcinogenic at all to definitely carcinogenic. Every year, IARC publishes about three volumes of monographs.
"The strength of the monographs program was its scientific integrity," says Lorenzo Tomatis, an Italian M.D. who was IARC's director from 1982 to 1993. Originally, explains Tomatis, an internationally respected cancer specialist who has held research posts at the University of Turin and Chicago Medical School, panels drew only on published, peer-reviewed research. IARC resisted repeated requests from industry to allow confidential reviews of secret data from company labs.
Today, that policy has changed. And so has the policy of choosing experts who have no conflicts of interest. A February letter to WHO, signed by two dozen university and government scientists from around the world, including Tomatis and Huff, sharply criticized IARC (and other WHO agencies) for using "research openly or surreptitiously sponsored by industrial concerns." The letter also pointed to "problems of corporate influence and undisclosed conflicts of interest" among panel members. In fact, scientists with conflicts are now asked not only to attend meetings as observers, but sometimes to participate as full voting members.
"The people participating are usually very good scientists," says Tomatis. But their presence on panels makes the monographs less credible, and raises the possibility that research in line with industry priorities will receive more attention than it would otherwise.
Consider saccharin. In 1998, IARC reevaluated the sweetener, long ranked a "possible" carcinogen because of mixed evidence. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, asked whether he could send a scientist as a nonvoting observer. IARC refused. But other interested parties had no trouble finding seats. One of the more influential of the voting panel members was Samuel Cohen of the University of Nebraska, who is affiliated with a research group called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Among ILSI's industry donors at the time were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the manufacturer of Sweet 'N' Low. Also participating were scientists from Procter & Gamble and ILSI itself.
The panel confirmed that the evidence on saccharin was still mixed. But this time around, that was no longer considered a red flag. "It was like having a defense attorney on the jury," says Jacobson. The panel downgraded saccharin -- reclassifying it from a possible carcinogen to a substance of unknown risk. Within two years, saccharin was taken off the U.S. list of carcinogens.
Lorenzo Tomatis gives a broader example: a critical 1997 IARC workshop held to review whole categories of evidence for carcinogenicity. There were only a few completely independent scientists present. The participants decided it was reasonable for panels to ignore cancer tests that produced tumors in rodents' bladders, renal cortices, or thyroids, because the tumors probably formed in a way that could not happen in humans. Yet the workshop participants themselves agreed that there were "conspicuous gaps in knowledge" about the rodent tumors.
Vigilant attention from other scientists, it appears, can help. NRDC toxicologist Jennifer Sass gives the example of styrene, used in the plastics and rubber industries. Early this year, Sass discovered that IARC had invited a former employee of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology to its upcoming styrene meeting in February. Moreover, IARC had invited -- as full voting members -- two paid consultants for an industry group, the Styrene Information and Research Center. One of them had been picked to write the all-important literature review (a summary of existing research) and present it to the larger committee.
Shortly before the meeting, Sass sent a letter to IARC's director about the tainted styrene panel -- with a copy to the National Cancer Institute, one of IARC's major outside funders. Also in February, Sass met with the head of IARC's carcinogen evaluation unit, Jerry Rice. In the end, the two styrene consultants recused themselves from voting. And the panel decided to keep styrene's ranking exactly where it was. "We'll never know what would have happened if we hadn't complained about the process," says Sass.
Tomatis and Huff say they see a troubling trend. In separate interviews, both said the panels are making fewer decisions that prevent potential health risks, more that protect industry's interests. Some substances given more favorable rankings recently: the pesticide atrazine; 1,3-butadiene, used in making rubber and plastics; and rockwool and glasswool insulation such as fiberglass.
For their part, IARC officials say adequate safeguards are in place. All panelists are required to sign a WHO form disclosing financial conflicts of interest, for instance. But, argues Rice, "It is getting very difficult to find individuals who have contributed significantly to the scientific literature on specific chemicals and who have no research funding or other connection with industry."
Rice may have a point. In 1996, the New England Journal of Medicine decided it would no longer publish review articles -- which, like IARC panels, require selection and interpretation of a spectrum of research -- by authors with any financial links to companies making the product being discussed. Last year, the journal weakened its policy, saying it was having trouble finding authors.
Adds Tomatis, "I would hate to see IARC singled out as a black sheep. There is a much broader zeitgeist now, where industry seems to be able drive research where it wants it to go, and where the idea of the independence of science no longer exists."
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