❝ This week, the World Health Organization managed to inject even more confusion into an already confusing question: whether glyphosate, the common weed killer popularized as Roundup by Monsanto, causes cancer.
Glyphosate poses no cancer risk, according to a report just out from a joint United Nations and WHO meeting on herbicide residues. But just a year ago, another group in the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Is anyone not confused at this point?
❝ There is a path to clarity, but it goes through the weeds of public health policy. Here is the takeaway though: The IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation — realistic or not — while the joint meeting’s report looks at whether glyphosate can cause cancer in real-life conditions, like if you eat cereal every morning made from corn treated with glyphosate. One of these reports is, by design, much more relevant to your life than the other.
❝ The IARC is also, by design, not supposed to make recommendations to the public. It assesses “hazard,” which in scientific jargon, means something very different than “risk.” David Eastmond, a toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside, uses sharks to illustrate the difference. If you have people gawking at sharks swimming around a tank in an aquarium, the sharks are a hazard, but they pose little risk. If you have a surfer on the beach with a shark waiting offshore, now that shark is both a hazard and a risk.
❝ To the IARC, a shark has sharp teeth and powerful jaws, and the agency doesn’t care if you’re at the beach or at an aquarium…For the real world, regulatory agencies determine “risk” by studying whether consumers or farm workers actually encounter glyphosate at levels that cause cancer. So far, the answer has been no, with the draft summary from the joint meeting this week and the European Food Safety Authority’s reassessment of glyphosate last November…
❝ When the IARC was set up in 1965, its monographs were supposed to be resources for scientists at regulatory agencies. Exposure to potential carcinogens like sunlight or alcohol or chemicals in food might differ from country to country, and the logic was local authorities are in a better position to make local recommendations…It should let national regulatory agencies do the research,” Paolo Boffetta, a cancer epidemiologist…told me back when the agency put out its monograph on red meat.
They went through the same viral public response last year over bacon. They revisit barbecue every now and then. The point remains the same. The IARC evaluates hazard – not risk. The difference is more than semantics.