And they did. Their decisions for the first 20 years were rock solid - there is no debate now that cigarettes, smog, and alcohol will kill you, especially if you routinely have high doses. When California chose to abdicated its science policymaking to a French group, there were concerns that its power might be abused but they were dismissed because there was no indication IARC was heading in that direction.
But there is a certain entropy to political bodies just like there is in physical ones and in the 2000s, with no more carcinogens to find, IARC began to subtly manufacture them. A number of activists (and trial lawyer expert witnesses) wormed their way inside and began grooming it for takeover by recommending their allies for inclusion. By 2015 their epidemiologists were a laughingstock to biologists, toxicologists, and chemists, and California's Proposition 65 now has hundreds of compounds that must have a bizarre warning label because the state chose to hand over its regulatory power to statisticians.(2)
Did it make us safer? No. There is no increased safety walking up to a California Walmart and being greeted by a blanket sign telling you the contents of the entire building might give you cancer - because so many products inside are on some list a group of statisticians linked to cancer one time. And this picture is one of my favorites, taken by a doctor in a California oncology ward (who wants to remain anonymous) warning patients in the one place they have cancer that they might get cancer from a corkboard:
Last year, with director Chris Wild choosing to resign rather than be thrown out due to the controversy surrounding IARC's work, they had a chance to forge a new way. Instead, they went as Old Guard as they could,(3) choosing in epidemiologist Elisabete Weiderpass someone literally married to IARC. Her spouse is Harri Vainio, an activist who is a huge part of the IARC credibility problem. (4)
The World Health Organisation is not assuming IARC's problems will fix themselves without pressure from above,(5) and they are taking action before the U.S. and others pull funding from IARC due to flagrant dismissal of data that subverts the findings IARC seems to have picked in advance. At a recent Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO recommended that the rogue agency be brought to heel, asking that WHO exercise more oversight to avoid confusion, duplication and a lot less IARC “undermining” work of science bodies. And that has been the norm for IARC. They are not finding things other agencies miss, they are creating statistical correlations to declare hazards - while using five orders of magnitude for dose.
When IARC was created, "zero" was under a part per million. Now we can detect parts per quadrillion, testing is a million times more sensitive. Yet IARC remains stuck in the past. If an epidemiologist tells you a chemical in Scotch will harm you, you will be alarmed, but if a chemist, a biologist, or a toxicologist corrects them and notes it would take 10,000 shots of Scotch all at once to cause that harm, you will be annoyed.
Yet that is what IARC now does in every monograph. They completely ignore does, except in their media kits for journalists, where they mention "risk" dozens of times.
WHO has had enough. They have told IARC to stop reviewing compounds that have already been cleared by scientists with the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) or FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). They noted that IARC has been "enjoying a certain autonomy" but their loose methodology, not to mention their undisclosed conflicts of interest, and ask member countries to "exercise appropriate oversight to "ensure that the IARC would not duplicate and undermine the work of JMPR and JECFA on chemicals in food."
This is a political body. Those are fighting words. The UN has had enough of statisticians using their name to promote fear and doubt about science. And putting a halt to that will be good for everyone.
(1) Their first director, Dr. John Higginson, remains a personal hero of mine.
(2) IARC is in France but if the takeover of American epidemiology continues we will be no better off here. Our own NIEHS head, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, is a member of the Ramazinni Institute. That's like a Catholic Bishop joining a Satanic Cult, except a cult with even less evidence for its beliefs.
(3) America leads the world in adult science literacy, Nobel prizes, science output, and science funding, yet somehow no American has been in serious contention to run it since the first director. In 1965.
(4) Dr. Weiderpass obviously shares his values, since she loves him, but in fairness to her, she will really need to try to be as bad as Chris Wild. All IARC has to do to regain credibility is stop bringing in people like Martyn Smith (who used his IARC badge to create a trial lawyer front group to sue over toast and french fries) or Christ Portier, who not only worked for an activist group lobbying against the herbicide he wanted a cancer warning on, he even signed an expert agreement with a law firm that wanted to sue over it...before the mongraph was released. Which means he had told lawyers about it before the public knew. Yet that means they will have to scrutinize our own NIEHS members more carefully. Getting on NIEHS panels and then trading up to IARC is the tactic both of them used, and Linda Birnbaum is obviously politically sympathetic, since she keeps bringing these anti-science activists into her organization.
(5) I made three recommendations to Dr. Weiderpass when she was chosen: Purge the activists; Stop conflating hazard and risk to get media attention; be transparent. So far they have stuck with the status quo instead.
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