Chemical industry launches PR war against World Health Organization

WHO's cancer research agency is 'dubious and misleading,' trade group charges

It's to be expected that corporations do not like it when government agencies say their products could cause cancer. When California regulators, for example, attempted last year to add glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller, to a state list of possible carcinogens, the agrochemical giant sued the state.

California’s decision on glyphosate dates back to a panel organized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization. In a move that angered many in the industry, the world cancer agency in 2015 concluded that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.

In response, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment decided to label glyphosate as a carcinogen under Proposition 65, the state’s law that lists and labels products that potentially cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive problems. As a result, Monsanto shortly after filed a lawsuit against the agency. 

Now the industry is setting its sights beyond California and looking at the bigger picture.

Industry campaign targets WHO

The American Chemistry Council is a trade group representing a long list of corporations that produce and work with synthetic chemicals, from ExxonMobil to Eli Lilly to Monsanto. The trade group has a history of enthusiastically defending the safety of various chemicals and lobbying health agencies to do the same. 

On Wednesday, the American Chemistry Council announced the launch of its new campaign, one that it claims will promote "Credibility in Public Health Research," or CAPHR for short. The target of the CAPHR campaign is the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, the same agency that had listed glyphosate as a carcinogen. 

"In particular, CAPHR will seek reform of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) Monographs Program, which evaluates the carcinogenic hazard of substances and behaviors," writes the American Chemistry Council in a press release. "IARC’s Monographs Program suffers from persistent scientific and process deficiencies that result in public confusion and misinformed policy-making."

While that assessment is debateable, the American Chemistry Council correctly notes that IARC’s decisions "have a significant impact on U.S. public policy and marketplace deselection...IARC classifications have also been used by retailers as justification to phase out certain substances." Of course, it’s perfectly legal for retailers to phase out “certain substances” and for consumers to follow suit, but such “marketplace deselection” clearly hurts the pocketbooks of industry giants. 

The trade group further accuses the IARC's decisions of leading to "dubious and misleading news coverage."

American Chemistry Council has also defended formaldehyde

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), unlike the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, have often sided with industry leaders in debates over controversial chemicals.

For example, the EPA has repeatedly ruled that glyphosate does not cause cancer. And when it organized another scientific panel into the matter last year, the agency agreed to remove one researcher whom the pesticide industry felt was too critical. The FDA, for its part, has long maintained the safety of Bisphenol-A in food packaging, despite petitions from some food safety groups asking to have it removed. 

But American federal regulators and chemical producers don't always see eye-to-eye either. In July of last year, the EPA finalized rules meant to protect workers from formaldehyde exposure. "Exposure to formaldehyde can cause adverse health effects including eye, nose and throat irritation, other respiratory symptoms and cancer," the EPA explained, backing up a long history of research into the matter.

The American Chemistry Council has continued to insist that formaldehyde exposure is perfectly safe and has similarly taken the EPA to task for stating otherwise.  

"The truth is, formaldehyde is a natural part of our world," the American Chemistry Council wrote in one report, "and the illogical findings of IRIS," or EPA’s draft Integrated Risk Information System, "are not."

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