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Over the past few years, headlines have claimed everything from shift work to drinking “very hot” beverages can cause cancer. These alarmist headlines stemmed from the work of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs Program, which evaluates cancer hazards. The Monographs Program only examines cancer hazards (the potential of an “agent” or chemical to cause cancer) rather than cancer risks (the actually risk of developing cancer based on exposure to a cancer hazard). Many of the substances classified as cancer hazards by IARC pose a very small cancer risk, if any risk at all, to most people. But even if that risk of developing cancer from exposure to a substance is infinitesimal, once a substance is classified as a carcinogen by IARC, public policy and commercial decisions are triggered around the world.
The Monographs Program has come under significant scrutiny for the manner in which it evaluates and communicates about potential cancer hazards, detracting from IARC’s important mission of enhancing public health.
Recently, IARC convened experts to review the IARC Preamble, which describes the process by which IARC staff and Working Groups gather, evaluate, and determine the potential carcinogenic hazards of chemicals and agents.
ACC submitted detailed comments to IARC describing areas where improvements to the Preamble were needed. ACC emphasized that, given all the concerns raised about the Monographs Program—including lack of transparency, inadequate review of or failure to fully review all relevant scientific information, questionable practices for evaluating and integrating mechanistic data, lack of independent peer review, and conflicts of interest—the Preamble required a top-to-bottom, comprehensive review. However, IARC did not act on this recommendation.
Consequently, the revised Preamble, while making some important upgrades, still falls well short of meeting current scientific benchmarks for evidence-based decision making. Below we highlight a few of the major shortcomings and flaws:
What does this all mean?
This was a tremendous opportunity that’s been lost. IARC had the opportunity to bring its Monographs policies, practices and procedures up to the benchmarks of 21st century evidence-based decision making and it failed to do so.
As a consequence, we’ll likely continue to see IARC Monograph classifications that are scientifically flawed, generate unfounded concern and create perceptions of health risks where, at environmental levels of exposures, no significant risks actually exist.
This leaves us wondering – is IARC really concerned about protecting public health? Or is IARC failing to properly update the scientific approaches of the Monographs Program to meet present day evidence evaluation benchmarks so it can continue to make headlines under the color of authority? In which case, ask yourself, whose health and well-being are really being served?
Science is essential to understanding the world’s most pressing challenges and to overcoming them.
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