- - Friday, April 13, 2018

Following an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) review of benzene, a chemical commonly found in gasoline, tobacco smoke and other industries, a chemical engineer is alleging serious errors, which could have potentially deadly consequences for workers exposed to the substance.

Around three years ago, chemical engineer Melvyn Kopstein alerted the IARC to errors he believed were contained in the agency’s benzene review. Titled “Monograph 100F,” the IARC’s review contended that while benzene can cause cancer, workers have typically experienced less than maximum safe daily limits of the chemical since the 1980s.

Last month, Reuters published excerpts from emails between Mr. Kopstein and Martyn Smith, a member of the IARC working group who reviewed benzene. Discussing Mr. Kopstein’s concerns, Mr. Smith wrote that the review “tried to cover too much,” and that he wasn’t surprised it “left out key findings or focused on the wrong studies.”

Furthermore, in April, Kurt Straif, the head of the IARC Monograph unit that accesses carcinogenicity, wrote in an email, “We do not plan to amend the Monograph or take any further action.”

Mr. Kopstein labeled the IARC’s cavalier attitude toward the revelations “unexpected,” adding, “After all, they — IARC — are supposed to be the go-to source around the world of unbiased scientific information on the carcinogenicity of products and chemicals.”

Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain how IARC arrives at its conclusions, as the agency doesn’t reveal details of its assessments and bars observers from discussing any proceedings publicly.

In this case, a well-reasoned critique of IARC, an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), is entirely justified. Governments, agencies, industries and individuals rely on IARC’s scientific analyses to protect nothing less than their health. A flawed review could potentially place millions of workers frequently exposed to benzene at risk for developing cancer.

While often considered the world’s authority on carcinogenicity, this isn’t the first time IARC’s reports have been highly disputed, suggesting that the agency is becoming increasingly unreliable.

In March 2015, IARC classified glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, as a carcinogen. This assessment directly clashed with a consensus of organizations that determined the chemical did not pose a risk to humans, including the EPA, European Food Safety Authority, and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Whether overestimating the cancer risk of glyphosate, or undermining that of benzene, it appears that IARC tends to cherry-pick data to fit a desired conclusion.

Concerns with the IARC’s approach to scientific research even raised ire with the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which warned the agency in December it was considering withdrawing funding if research practices weren’t revised.

Additionally, during a committee hearing in February, Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, criticized the IARC’s “irresponsible handling of data,” and Rep. Frank Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, called out the agency for its “shoddy work.” It seems likely that other big IARC contributors, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which has awarded the agency $40 million since 1992, will be reconsidering.

While threats of cutting off money may be enough to curb the agency’s dubious practices, these potentially inaccurate reviews continue to harm individuals and industries across the U.S. In California, companies are placing cancer risk labels on products based solely on IARC’s findings, and glyphosate opponents are fighting to have the agency’s reviews accepted.

In the case of chemical cancer risk to human health, misjudging data can have disastrous, perhaps even deadly consequences. Based on the IARC’s track record, it is unclear whether regulators should continue to rely on its findings, or financiers should expect clear, unbiased scientific research.

Mitchell Gunter is a Washington writer.

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