The crime and the punishment of Lorenzo from IARC

Lorenzo Tomatis, an Italian M.D., was IARC's director from 1982 to 1993 (IARC= International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization.) Dr. Lorenzo's Crime: he is just too honest a scientist, he looks for scientific evidence, he is against the industry's control over science. That a huge crime according to the publishment.

His Punishment- he is not allowed to enter to IARC's building- ever.

Do they welcome Saddam Hussein more than Dr. Lorenzo Tomatis? He thinks so.

1. Lorenzo's crime: Originally, explains Tomatis, an internationally respected cancer specialist who has held research posts at the University of Turin and Chicago Medical School, panels drew only on published, peer-reviewed research. IARC resisted repeated requests from industry to allow confidential reviews of secret data from company labs.

Today, that policy has changed. And so has the policy of choosing experts who have no conflicts of interest. A February letter to WHO, signed by two dozen university and government scientists from around the world, including Tomatis....sharply criticized IARC (and other WHO agencies) for using "research openly or surreptitiously sponsored by industrial concerns." The letter also pointed to "problems of corporate influence and undisclosed conflicts of interest" among panel members. In fact, scientists with conflicts are now asked not only to attend meetings as observers, but sometimes to participate as full voting members.

"The people participating are usually very good scientists," says Tomatis. But their presence on panels makes the monographs less credible, and raises the possibility that research in line with industry priorities will receive more attention than it would otherwise.

Consider saccharin. In 1998, IARC reevaluated the sweetener, long ranked a "possible" carcinogen because of mixed evidence. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, asked whether he could send a scientist as a nonvoting observer. IARC refused. But other interested parties had no trouble finding seats. One of the more influential of the voting panel members was Samuel Cohen of the University of Nebraska, who is affiliated with a research group called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Among ILSI's industry donors at the time were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the manufacturer of Sweet 'N' Low. Also participating were scientists from Procter & Gamble and ILSI itself.

The panel confirmed that the evidence on saccharin was still mixed. But this time around, that was no longer considered a red flag. "It was like having a defense attorney on the jury," says Jacobson. The panel downgraded saccharin -- reclassifying it from a possible carcinogen to a substance of unknown risk. Within two years, saccharin was taken off the U.S. list of carcinogens.

Lorenzo Tomatis gives a broader example: a critical 1997 IARC workshop held to review whole categories of evidence for carcinogenicity. There were only a few completely independent scientists present. The participants decided it was reasonable for panels to ignore cancer tests that produced tumors in rodents' bladders, renal cortices, or thyroids, because the tumors probably formed in a way that could not happen in humans. Yet the workshop participants themselves agreed that there were "conspicuous gaps in knowledge" about the rodent tumors.

Vigilant attention from other scientists, it appears, can help. NRDC toxicologist Jennifer Sass gives the example of styrene, used in the plastics and rubber industries. Early this year, Sass discovered that IARC had invited a former employee of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology to its upcoming styrene meeting in February. Moreover, IARC had invited -- as full voting members -- two paid consultants for an industry group, the Styrene Information and Research Center. One of them had been picked to write the all-important literature review (a summary of existing research) and present it to the larger committee.

Shortly before the meeting, Sass sent a letter to IARC's director about the tainted styrene panel -- with a copy to the National Cancer Institute, one of IARC's major outside funders. Also in February, Sass met with the head of IARC's carcinogen evaluation unit, Jerry Rice. In the end, the two styrene consultants recused themselves from voting. And the panel decided to keep styrene's ranking exactly where it was. "We'll never know what would have happened if we hadn't complained about the process," says Sass.

omatis and Huff say they see a troubling trend. In separate interviews, both said the panels are making fewer decisions that prevent potential health risks, more that protect industry's interests. Some substances given more favorable rankings recently: the pesticide atrazine; 1,3-butadiene, used in making rubber and plastics; and rockwool and glasswool insulation such as fiberglass.

For their part, IARC officials say adequate safeguards are in place. All panelists are required to sign a WHO form disclosing financial conflicts of interest, for instance. But, argues Rice, "It is getting very difficult to find individuals who have contributed significantly to the scientific literature on specific chemicals and who have no research funding or other connection with industry."

Rice may have a point. In 1996, the New England Journal of Medicine decided it would no longer publish review articles -- which, like IARC panels, require selection and interpretation of a spectrum of research -- by authors with any financial links to companies making the product being discussed. Last year, the journal weakened its policy, saying it was having trouble finding authors.

Adds Tomatis, "I would hate to see IARC singled out as a black sheep. There is a much broader zeitgeist now, where industry seems to be able drive research where it wants it to go, and where the idea of the independence of science no longer exists."


2. Lorenzo's Punishment

Paul Kleihues took over from Tomatis as head of IARC. He says these critics always see industry as the enemy of public health.

"If they don't have scientific reasons they suggest a conflict of interest of industry or participants that have a vested interest. We do not believe that any of our recent decisions was ultimately influenced by industry."

Kleihues rejected the accusation and then barred Lorenzo Tomatis from ever re-entering the building.

"He told me I was persona non grata and had me escorted out by two witnesses from the building saying I was not allowed to come back…I think even Saddam Hussein could go back into IARC but not me. I found it totally absurd because it was a disagreement on the interpretation of scientific data."

"We did not ban him because of a scientific disagreement," Peter Kleihues said. "What is not acceptable is that he questions our integrity, our striving for scientific truth. If scientific truth is no longer our guiding principle, we’d better close this whole place down."

What does this squabbling mean for the cellphone study and for those of us who use a cellphone? The critics are accusing IARC of not trying hard enough to keep industry money and influence away from the science.


Informant: Iris Atzmon


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Juni 2004

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