“Independent panel” was convened with Monsanto money to counter IARC’s verdict that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen and damages DNA. Claire Robinson reports
Five papers defending the safety of glyphosate herbicides were published last month in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology.
As stated in the declarations of interest at the foot of each paper, all are funded by Monsanto via the industry consultancy firm Intertek. Many of the authors have links to Monsanto, other chemical companies, and industry consultancy firms.
An accompanying comment piece by the journal’s editor explains that the Monsanto-funded papers are designed to counter the World Health Organisation cancer agency IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen and as genotoxic (damaging to DNA). The IARC’s conclusions were, according to the editor, “a surprise to many scientists who had followed the literature on the potential health hazards of glyphosate over many decades”.
The editor describes what happened next: “Following the IARC carcinogenic hazard classification of glyphosate, the Monsanto Company engaged Intertek, a scientific and regulatory consulting firm, to convene an independent scientific panel to evaluate and synthesize the scientific evidence of the potential carcinogenic hazard of glyphosate. The activities and conclusions of the independent panel are reported in the five papers in this special issue.”
It will come as no surprise that the “independent panel” gave glyphosate herbicides a clean bill of health, deciding that the scientific data do not support a verdict of carcinogenicity or genotoxicity. A summary of their reasoning and why it’s invalid is at the foot of this article.
“Independent” – but funded by Monsanto
Already the Monsanto papers are being used uncritically by some sectors of the media in an attempt to discredit the IARC report.
For example, Delta Farm Press describes the expert panel that evaluated glyphosate as “independent”, even though the members were recruited by the industry consultancy Intertek and funding was provided to Intertek by Monsanto.
Even the publication of the papers in a special “sponsored Open Access Supplement Issue” was arranged by Intertek, presumably again with Monsanto money.
House Committee goes after IARC
The Monsanto papers were released as the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health questioning its funding of IARC and asking for the release of documents related to this funding.
The letter, released by Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), said, “IARC’s standards and determinations for classifying substances as carcinogens, and therefore cancer-causing, appear inconsistent with other scientific research and have generated much controversy and alarm.”
The letter continued, “Despite this record of controversy, retractions and inconsistencies, IARC receives substantial taxpayer funding from the National Institutes of Health. NIH’s grant database reflects that the agency has given IARC several millions of dollars since 1992, including over $1.2 million so far this year.”
Beware the French influence
In a framing that might be considered xenophobic, the House Committee calls IARC “a France-based cancer research agency associated with the World Health Organization” which “influence[s] American policymaking, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science committees in America”.
Some may respond that in the current climate of regulatory capture by industry in the USA, a France-based agency that’s independent of the US government is perfectly placed to provide it with independent scientific advice.
Papers published in industry-linked journal
The journal in which the new papers appear, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, together with another journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, has been dubbed by critics a purveyor of junk science – “misleading, industry-backed articles that threaten public health by playing down the dangers of well-known toxic substances such as lead and asbestos. The articles often are used to stall regulatory efforts and defend court cases.”
An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that half of all review articles written by top scientists at the industry consulting firm Gradient since 1992 were published either in Critical Reviews or Regulatory Toxicology. No other journal came close.
“You’d have to be delusional to not recognize that the issues they’re dealing [with] and policies they’re setting won’t affect the profits of very powerful sources,” said Canadian anti-asbestos activist Kathleen Ruff, who called both journals “egregious examples” of a deeper problem of industry influence. “Creating doubt is an endless activity and, in the meantime, people die unnecessarily.”
Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, commented on pro-industry bias at the journals, “The harm is that it actually muddies the independent scientific literature. They’re stacking their weight on their side of the scale.”
That, of course, is precisely the aim of the latest Monsanto-sponsored onslaught on IARC’s independent scientific evaluation of glyphosate herbicides.
1. The papers are:
* Genotoxicity Expert Panel review: weight of evidence evaluation of the genotoxicity of glyphosate, glyphosate-based formulations, and aminomethylphosphonic acid. Brusick D, Aardema M, Kier L, Kirkland D, Williams G. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):56-74. PMID: 27677670
* Glyphosate rodent carcinogenicity bioassay expert panel review. Williams GM, Berry C, Burns M, de Camargo JL, Greim H. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):44-55.
* Glyphosate epidemiology expert panel review: a weight of evidence systematic review of the relationship between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or multiple myeloma. Acquavella J, Garabrant D, Marsh G, Sorahan T, Weed DL. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):28-43. PMID: 27677668
* Glyphosate in the general population and in applicators: a critical review of studies on exposures. Solomon KR. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):21-27.
PMID: 27677667 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]
* A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment. Williams GM, Aardema M, Acquavella J, Berry SC, Brusick D, Burns MM, de Camargo JL, Garabrant D, Greim HA, Kier LD, Kirkland DJ, Marsh G, Solomon KR, Sorahan T, Roberts A, Weed DL. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):3-20. PMID: 27677666 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]
A separate comment piece by the editor of the journal has been published in the same issue:
* Evaluating the potential carcinogenic hazard of glyphosate. McClellan RO. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):1-2. No abstract available. PMID: 27677665 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]
All are Open Access and can be found by pasting the title of each article in the search box here:
2. In the paper denying glyphosate’s carcinogenicity in animal studies, the arguments boil down to:
a. In some cases, non-cancerous tumours in glyphosate-exposed groups did not progress to cancerous tumours.
b. Increases in both non-cancerous and cancerous tumours in exposed groups did not follow a linear dose-response pattern, increasing in a straight line as dose increased.
c. Increases in tumours in exposed groups were not statistically significant.
d. Increases in tumours in exposed groups were within the range of historical control data obtained from outside the experiment and could thus be dismissed.
e. Increases in tumours in exposed groups lacked a “plausible mechanism”.
Here’s why each of these arguments is invalid:
a. Standard rodent feeding trials kill the animals after two years, two-thirds of the way through their natural lifespan of three years. This is like trying to judge cancer incidence in humans that are euthanised at 65 years old – a vast number of cancers that show up in old age are missed. So in some cases, the non-cancerous tumours would have progressed to cancerous tumours. We just don’t know, and neither does Monsanto.
b. Assuming that toxic effects always increase with the dose is outdated science. Modern science knows that in the case of some substances, lower doses can have a greater toxic effect than higher doses.
c. Lack of statistical significance for increases in tumours might mean there isn’t really a tumour or cancer-promoting effect in operation. But it might mean that there is an effect but there are insufficient numbers of animals to show statistical significance. This is especially the case if the particular type of tumour is rare. Testing higher numbers of animals may show that there certainly is an effect. While we don’t like animal testing, doing tests on insufficient numbers of animals is truly a waste of the animals’ lives.
d. Dismissing statistically significant effects in the exposed groups compared with the control group within the experiment on the basis of “control” data from unrelated experiments, potentially done in very different conditions, is not valid. This is made clear by the OECD, which sets international protocols for testing chemicals. The OECD says that the concurrent control group within the experiment in question is the most important factor in testing for increased tumour rates.
e. In terms of mechanisms of toxicity, what is not “plausible” to Monsanto may be very plausible to independent scientists and others who don’t have millions of dollars invested in glyphosate. And this point is irrelevant because finding a plausible mechanism for a certain toxic effect is not necessary in order to ban the substance in question – at least in Europe. That’s fortunate because sometimes scientists realize that a substance is toxic long before the mechanism is known. Sometimes the mechanism is never found.