IARC Does Not Assess Risk, Regulators Do

By Dr. Howard Minigh
CropLife International


Howard Minigh, president and CEO, CropLife International


Few people in the crop protection industry had heard of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) before this year. Today, however, the work of the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) has fueled sensationalist headlines, calls to ban pesticides, and knee-jerk regulatory decisions around the world.

In March, the agency convened a one-week meeting in Lyon, France, to assess the carcinogenicity potential of five crop protection products. Three were classified as “possibly” and two as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, the most high profile of which was glyphosate. In June IARC assessed 2,4-D, DDT and lindane.

Notwithstanding our concerns about how the classifications were reached, the failure to spell out that IARC classifications are based purely on a hazard identification, not a risk assessment, has led to great confusion – and often misinformation – being propagated through the media to farmers, regulators, our stakeholders, the NGO community and the general public.

Industry critics have taken advantage of the confusion and are seeing the fruits of their campaigning – for example the Colombian and Bermudan governments have agreed to suspend certain uses of glyphosate, citing the IARC classification as a primary reason, while a German DIY chain has stopped stocking glyphosate products.

But to ban or restrict a product solely on the IARC classification is entirely baseless. Over the years, IARC has generated hazard identification classifications on many everyday products, including coffee, Aloe vera, talcum powder, and even cell phones. But there is no call to ban these products, just as we shouldn’t call to ban crop protection products on this basis.

The point is that IARC uses a limited data set to carry out a “hazard identification” of an agent. This is in stark contrast to regulatory bodies that use a much more extensive range of scientific studies to assess risk and risk management in real world conditions. Several regulatory bodies have been moved to publicly reiterate this distinction. For example Health Canada said of the IARC classification: “…it is important to note that a hazard classification is not a health risk assessment. The level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, was not taken into account.”

With this distinction in mind, we can say that existing risk assessments carried out by the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and by major regulatory agencies remain valid – there is no need for any regulatory action as a result of the IARC classification.

Human health and responsible use of crop protection products is and must always be our highest priority. As an industry we take pride in the extreme rigor by which we assess our products, our detailed submissions to regulators and the subsequent confidence this gives to crop protection product users and the public at large.

CropLife International has therefore asked WHO Director General Margaret Chan to publicly clarify that IARC classifications do not look at risk, and therefore do not constitute a real and present danger to human health. In 2011, IARC classified the electromagnetic fields associated with the use of cell phones as “possibly” carcinogenic and WHO subsequently clarified the need for a risk assessment to avoid unnecessary alarm. We believe an immediate clarification about crop protection products is also in the public interest.

Howard Minigh has served as president and CEO of CropLife International since 2006. He is also founder of management consulting firm HM Advisors. He can be reached at [email protected].