Reverse the 'post-truth' attitude to public health research
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In recent weeks politicians of both parties have traded barbs with each other and with the media over so called “fake news.”  While the debate over the actual validity of facts in political reporting (rather than its impartiality) is relatively new, when it comes to public health information, the subjective interpretation of information is unfortunately the status quo.  

In fact much of the “news” about public health developments is often little more than hyperbolic headlines that are unsupported by credible and thorough scientific study, but that are excellent clickbait to drive website traffic and advertising sales.

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This troubling trend is especially apparent in news coverage around cancer. In the last two years, headlines have warned that eating meat, using a cell phone, or drinking a hot beverage could raise your risk of cancer. But are these common activities actually impacting our health?

 

According to most scientists and public health organizations, the answer is no — these activities generally pose a very small, if any, risk of cancer. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped one cancer research agency from loudly sounding alarm bells.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regularly publishes “monographs,” which proclaim the potential of many substances, everyday items, and activities to cause cancer. IARC, a World Health Organization (WHO) agency based in France, examines hazard, whether a substance or activity could cause cancer under any possible scenario, and not risk, whether it’s likely you’ll actually develop cancer under real world scenarios.

Identifying hazards, without considering risk, isn’t helpful to consumers.

For example, water poses a hazard because someone could slip on it, drink too much of it, or drown in it. But it poses little risk, especially if proper precautions are taken. Though IARC hasn’t labeled water a carcinogen, the agency’s exclusive focus on hazard explains why IARC has assessed nearly 1,000 substances and activities and found only one that was “probably not likely” to cause cancer.

Further adding to the public’s confusion, IARC classifies substances based on how convincing it finds the link between the substance and cancer, and not how likely it is that exposure will cause cancer. That’s why plutonium, sunshine, and processed meat are lumped in the same category as “known carcinogens.”

With its extreme reliance on hazard and a confusing categorization system, it’s easy to see how IARC’s cancer determinations generate overblown media attention. However, these are far from the agency’s only flaws.

IARC’s processes — how it reviews and considers scientific literature, invites participants to its workgroups, and publishes its decisions — are fraught with a lack of transparency and consistency.

As the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaffetz resting after 'successful' foot surgery Lawmakers reintroduce online sales tax bills DHS head: Not concerned Flynn may have been influenced by foreign nation MORE, has highlighted, IARC actively discourages scientists who participate in the development of its cancer reviews (and whose salaries and research are often funded by U.S. taxpayers) from complying with U.S. freedom of information laws.

Considering that our federal government foots the bill for roughly two-thirds of IARC’s Monographs Program, it’s even harder to understand why policymakers and the public are left in the dark trying to decipher IARC’s baffling decisions.

Reforming the way IARC conducts its monographs is essential. The decisions of this agency have implications far beyond hyperbolic headlines and confusing news coverage.

For example, California’s chemical labeling law, Proposition 65, uses IARC classifications to require warning labels on consumer products even when IARC’s findings are inconsistent with actual risk. Retailers have used IARC classifications to justify unwarranted product bans or unnecessary phase outs.

As part of our push for improvements to IARC’s Monographs Program, the American Chemistry Council and its members have launched the Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR).

This new campaign will help individuals and policymakers decipher the latest headlines generated by IARC and what they actually mean for public health. The campaign’s website enumerates six principles for the reform of IARC’s Monographs Program, and serves as a resource for those seeking more context around IARC’s work.

Identification of carcinogens must be guided by a full and transparent consideration of the weight of scientific evidence, free from conflicts of interest.

Without reform, IARC will continue to generate misleading news coverage and misguided public policies that muddle our understanding of the most effective ways to improve public health and mitigate cancer risks.

Nancy Beck, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., is Senior Director, Regulatory Science Policy, at the American Chemistry Council.


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