The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is being called on the carpet to explain why it gave tens of millions of dollars to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a United Nations agency that has been accused of “quackery” and “cherry picking” its facts.
Meanwhile, the NIH is stonewalling FOIA requests for its emails with IARC staff, claiming — absurdly — that U.S. freedom of information laws somehow don’t apply to U.S. government employees communicating with the IARC.
Why all the secrecy? The growing scandal over the IARC’s finding that the widely used herbicide glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans has nothing do with national security, terrorism or classified information.
Congress simply wants the NIH to explain its support and staff involvement with an agency that has been widely criticized for its shoddy science and plagued by questions of bias. Science claims upon which public health policies are set demand transparency, expert review and demonstrated replicability.
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Because of the IARC’s flawed assessment and its unprecedented political lobbying, glyphosate’s re-approval is now threatened in Europe, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delayed what should have been an easy re-approval. Losing glyphosate would be a massive blow to American farmers, consumers and the agricultural economy.
If we want the American people to continue to trust the integrity of our regulatory system, the NIH needs to answer the questions raised by the IARC’s actions.
In March of this year, David Zaruk published a series detailing the conflicts of interest of the IARC’s “independent expert,” Chris Portier.
An ex-staffer at the NIH’s sub-agency, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Portier drove the current IARC monograph process, determining which chemicals would be reviewed and influencing who would be selected to participate on the review panels — all the while taking a pay check from the anti-pesticide Environmental Defense Fund.
Despite the IARC’s purported strict conflict of interest rules, which it routinely uses to exclude scientists with any connection to industry, the agency covered up Portier’s activist connections for years, identifying him only as “retired” from the NIEHS.
Portier isn’t the only one in the IARC's revolving door of activist groups and those who profit by disparaging chemicals. Other monograph panelists with undisclosed conflicts include:
- Martyn Smith, reported to be a founding incorporator of the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) — an activist litigator group that sues companies over cancer claims linked to California Prop 65 issues — and an expert witness in lawsuits against chemical and pharmaceutical companies;
- Mary Wolff, an advisory board member of the anti-pesticide NGOs Breast Cancer Action and the Silent Spring Institute; and
- R. Thomas Zoeller, advisory board member of the anti-pesticide Organic Center.
Others, like Aaron Blair, Isabelle Baldi, Matthew Ross and Ivan Rusyn, frequently collaborate in activist conferences, co-publish papers with activists, or publicly lobby to ban pesticides. Many also serve as expert witnesses for lawsuits claiming chemicals cause cancer and are positioned to directly profit from the IARC’s skewed and misleading hazard-based cancer rankings.
Congress needs to know what role the NIEHS has played in all of this, to wit:
What role did the NIEHS and other U.S. government employees have in the IARC monograph process?
Was the NIEHS aware of Chris Portier’s and others’ conflicts of interest when it provided millions in taxpayer funds to the IARC?
Will the NIH comply with U.S. law and release their FOIA communications with the IARC to the public?
Finally, serious concerns have been raised about NIH and EPA procedures involving Chris Portier’s brother, Kenneth Portier. The two sat on multiple NIEHS and EPA panels and other meetings without disclosing their relationship — even when Ken sat in review of Chris’s work.
Despite declaring his belief that glyphosate should be taken off the market and the fact that his brother’s reputation as an expert claiming glyphosate causes cancer is directly tied to the review findings, Kenneth Portier has been named to sit on EPA’s glyphosate review panel.
Given this troubling conflict of interest, will the NIH and EPA disclose who recommended Kenneth Portier to this panel, release any official correspondence with Kenneth Portier and his brother Chris, and ask Kenneth Portier to make public any correspondence he has had with Chris regarding glyphosate?
The NIH needs to divulge what it knew and when it knew it. It must comply with U.S. transparency laws and rectify any internal conflicts that led to U.S. taxpayer dollars funding a rogue U.N. agency.
That’s how things are supposed to be done in the United States. Not in secret, behind closed doors.
Chassy served as a researcher at the NIH for 21 years before moving to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a department head and assistant dean, and is now professor emeritus of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
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