For America’s 207 million coffee drinkers, this month’s “latest study” brought a venti-sized serving of good news: A healthy dose of coffee leads to a longer life.
However, a healthy dose of skepticism might do more good.
The study’s claims that coffee may ward off everything from digestive diseases to stroke are the handiwork of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a semi-autonomous arm of the World Health Organization, which is a notorious peddler of junk science. In 1991, the agency claimed coffee was a possible source of cancer. It wasn’t until last year, after fighting scientific consensus more than two decades, that IARC reversed course.
Most research organizations don’t find themselves needing to save face with highly publicized studies proving they align with the rest of the scientific community. But IARC has made a name for itself not through prestigious research, but by its controversial involvement pushing political agendas and bowing to activist researchers.
Just ahead of last years’ spring harvest, IARC released a bombshell report identifying glyphosate, the world’s most heavily used weed killer — and the active ingredient in Roundup — as a “probable carcinogen.” The problem was, IARC’s classification defied the consensus of toxicologists from dozens of national and international authorities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, European Food Safety Authority and even the World Health Organization.
So it came as no surprise when a Brussels-based professor, David Zaruk, outed the anti-pesticide activists in the henhouse. In 2014, he revealed that an IARC scientist named Christopher Portier steered the committee that decided to review glyphosate. During Mr. Portier’s committee tenure — and later while serving as IARC’s only “invited specialist” to evaluate the weed killer — he was a paid employee of the anti-chemical activist group, Environmental Defense Fund.
It’s curious how an agency that claims moral authority for weeding out conflicts of interest (read: private-sector scientists) would permit testimony from the employee of a green nongovernment organization that rakes in more than $130 million each year by promoting a global fear of chemicals.
Most recently, a Reuters investigation outed the lead scientist who handed down IARC’s cancer ruling, Aaron Blair. He deliberately hid data supporting glyphosate’s safety from his fellow scientists. Under oath, the epidemiologist admitted that his omissions likely altered the course of glyphosate’s review.
In a previous chairmanship, Mr. Blair also identified working the night shift as a possible carcinogen. Perhaps if that night shift were spent cleaning the remnants of a nuclear meltdown. But Mr. Blair’s evaluation applied to far more mundane restaurant and retail employees, doctors and nurses.
The list of allegations reads almost like a synopsis from “The Twilight Zone”: There’s a vegan doctor, Mariana Stern, who worked to label red meat a probable carcinogen. That, despite IARC’s own admission of “limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans.” The World Health Organization even had to issue a clarification that IARC’s research did not mean people should stop eating meat.
Then there’s a IARC researcher, Rene de Seze, who helped the agency confirm cellphone radiation as another likely cancer source. IARC’s own conflict of interest notice disclosed that Mr. de Seze received funds and advised legal counsel for a French organization that fights the installation of cell towers. Yet cancer authorities like the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society — and those of us who don’t wear a tinfoil hat as we drink our morning coffee — seriously doubt that your next phone call will cause cancer.
A vested interest in one’s research space is par for the course. However, IARC’s researchers have repeatedly put their own interests ahead of discovering actual carcinogens in the name of public health.
When IARC began widely evaluating possible sources of cancer in 1987, it found that most suspected carcinogens, well, weren’t. But “toothbrush bristles probably don’t cause cancer” can’t quite justify a $50 million budget. And as purse strings tighten at the World Health Organization, IARC’s recent reviews continue uncovering a curious number of likely carcinogens.
But the agency’s sensationalist tendencies have clearly ventured a step too far. A “WHO insider” confided to Reuters reporter Kate Kelland of “talk here now of needing to rein IARC in.”
Groups like IARC have the benefit of hiding their politics behind the clout of an international health organization. Unless industries want their products raked over the coals by an agency whose existence depends on the promotion of public fear, they need to join the ranks of leaders speaking out against IARC’s tactics.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.