One. Out of over 950 items tested that is how many the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found “probably not” carcinogenic to humans. That one exception notwithstanding (the nylon in toothbrushes—dentists cheered), the WHO has bureaucrats working feverishly to prove the hackneyed phrase: Everything causes cancer.
And the United States helps.
On its face, who would have a problem with cancer research? Nobody. Cancer is a horrible disease. In fact, one of the IARC’s hobbyhorses is finding out just what are the safe doses of medical radiation. As someone who has had to have more than his fair share of CAT scans, this line of research benefits me. The United States contribution is tiny—just a fraction of a 43EUR budget.
But with that comes the United States’ imprimatur, and that creates a whole host of problems. IARC findings come with Uncle Sam’s implicit stamp of approval. We fund it. We support it. Thus, it carries a certain legitimacy. “A group of cancer researchers in Lyon, France” carries far less throw weight than “the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization” promoting “international collaboration in cancer research.”
The IARC does produces quality research. For example, a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) is funding research in the IARC’s is genetic epidemiology department. That is serious research, with which doubtfully few would quarrel.
But then the IARC delves into testing products. For example, the IARC determined that bacon and hot dogs are carcinogens. Most physicians would agree that bacon and processed meat do, in fact, increase a person’s risk for cancer. But the IARC classified bacon as a class 1 carcinogen, together with tobacco and plutonium. That does not pass the laugh test, but it generated headlines. An American-supported institution said so. Never mind that the FDA does not agree.
The IARC determined that glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, causes cancer. You might have heard that headline. What you probably did not hear was that the IARC clunkily lumped it into the same risk category as many lead compounds or that the EPA, a joint panel of the World Health Organization & the Food and Agriculture Organization (WHO/FAO) and the European Food Safety Authority, among others, disagree.
Who to believe, the FDA or the IARC? Your government supports both. This kind of a situation creates obvious problems.
Problem number one: Government credibility. Here is not the place to open a can of worms about the climate debate. However, that discussion tends to hinge on government-funded science. Bill Nye even found an imaginary constitutional edict requiring it.
So, when U.S. regulatory agencies disagree with the IARC, the United States finds itself funding both sides of the ledger. According to U.S.-funded science, bacon causes cancer; according to U.S.-funded science, it doesn’t. Bill Nye, call your office.
This is not to whitewash problems of cronyism at U.S. regulatory agencies. The recent scandal over Mylan’s EpiPen is only one of the more public examples.
Problem number two: Regulation is a fundamental U.S. government responsibility. The United States supports countless international research centers, and there is nothing wrong with that, but the IARC does not just act as a research center. It clearly strays into regulatory matters—often in rather shouty ways. An organization researching whether products x, y, and z are safe is performing a regulatory function, and the United States should not be outsourcing that, even if just a little bit. It matters. California even considered following IARC’s findings on glyphosate.
The dichotomy of research versus regulation is not complicated. When was the last time you saw a newsy blurb from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute? It is doubtful that the NIH runs a cancer institute whose modus operandi is to test products’ potential for causing cancer—let alone one that finds everything it tests to be a carcinogen.
Problem number three: accountability. If the FDA had declared that bacon is as dangerous as plutonium, American voters would have surely have given this taxpayer-funded regulatory agency an earful, if not marched on the headquarters with pitchforks.
To be sure, our regulatory agencies are open to cronyism. Witness President Obama’s orgy of green energy regulation, which grew demand for big Democrat Party donors in California.. President Trump’s FDA has fallen under accusations of cronyism.
Yet, in theory, the United States has institutions to deal with our regulators when they come off the rails. Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, when CEO of Searle, is famous for having sued the FDA over their ridiculous aspartame jihad. Obama’s EPA played fast and loose with EPA regulations, and the political process is currently adjudicating the matter.
Further, our domestic agencies have budgets, principals confirmed by the Senate, and are ultimately accountable to the American people. Our recourse is not perfect, but it is recourse, nonetheless. What recourse do American voters have when it comes to a WHO research center? They may address them to IARC, 150 Cours Albert Thomas, 69372 Lyon CEDEX 08, France.
Which is why Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is currently investigating the reasons behind the NIH’s funding of IARC.
Relatedly, problem four: theoretical. If the IARC tests a product, the only real question is how cancerous will they find it to be. Thus, the process of selecting which product to test is tremendously important. Why Roundup and not, say, Dow’s defoliant? It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where one company uses this process to gain an edge over its competitor.
According to the IARC, “The agency produces some of the most authoritative and widely used reference materials and major global databases on cancer used by governments, national and international policy-makers, scientists and the public.” That may be true. But they also stray into a lane that the U.S. government has carved out for domestic regulatory agencies. Sure, the EPA is overreaching, cantankerous, and full of problems. But it’s ultimately accountable.
This is not a screed against globalism, nor is this a screed against cancer research or an insinuation that, because the WHO is foreign, it is corrupt.
The IARC is not a threat to American sovereignty. It may produce truly helpful cancer research, and it may be a repository of the best cancer researchers in the world. The American people may even choose to continue supporting it, but the IARC should not compete with sovereign prerogatives, which it does.
The IARC is causing real problems. The United States should push it to reform, or we should withdraw our support.
Kristofer L. Harrison is senior managing director for a macro-economic consultancy. Previously, Mr. Harrison served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush Administration.