Opinionista Ivo Vegter 15 August 2017

How activists hijack regulators and demonise chemicals

One of the safest herbicides on the market, glyphosate, now carries a warning label in California saying it can cause cancer. Some countries have banned it altogether. In Europe, neonicotinoids, some of the safest pesticides on the market, have been banned. In both cases, activists gamed the system to advance their own interests, while harming both people and the environment.

The most successful activists are not do-gooders that tirelessly sacrifice themselves for the public good. They make their living from campaigns. If there was nothing to campaign about, they would be out of jobs and their investments in holistic healing and organic farming would crash. In pursuit of regulation, they are no different from the vested corporate interests that seek advantages against competitors. They are cronyists. Many are also corrupt.

The system is simple. Find something, anything, that the lay public might be convinced is dangerous. Ideally, it should have a scary-sounding name, and have a non-zero chance of causing harm to people or animals. Start raising funds for a campaign, tapping public donations and companies that would benefit from regulation or prohibition of this stuff. Propose activist scientists as experts to sit on government rule-making commissions, while having any scientists who have ever worked for industry excluded. Commission research from other pliable scientists to support the necessary conclusion, and arrange to have this published in reputable journals. Make sure the bureaucrats exclude other research, and especially contradictory research. Create simplistic, misleading public relations campaigns to sway the ignorant but vocal (and voting) masses. Secure the necessary regulatory restrictions. Bask in the glow of victory and the gratitude of your sponsors. Take home your lavish NGO pay. Rinse, repeat, profit.

This is how activists got the herbicide glyphosate classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which falls under the World Health Organisation of the United Nations. It now has to carry the infamous Proposition 65 cancer warning label in the state of California. It has also been banned outright in several countries.

This is also how activists who are implacably opposed to any and all agricultural chemicals managed to get the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to institute a moratorium on the use of three key neonicotinoid pesticides on flowering plants in 2015. It soon will institute a total ban. Note how the news headlines call these “bee-harming pesticides”, as if this is established fact and is all that needs to be said on the matter.

First, let’s consider the case of glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in a non-specific herbicide. It is often known as RoundUp, a Monsanto product, although that company’s patent expired in 2000 and hundreds of competing glyphosate products are now on the market. Resistance to glyphosate can be engineered into agricultural crops, and after application it becomes inert in soil, which makes it a favourite of farmers. It is also widely used in household herbicides.

Glyphosate is one of the safest herbicides on the market. It is less toxic to animals than vinegar and table salt. Glyphosate has an LD50 (the dose at which it is lethal for 50% of a sample population) of 5.6 grams per kilo of bodyweight in rats. By comparison, only 3g of table salt will do the same. So will only 3.3g of vinegar. That makes a common recipe for a natural, homemade weedkiller involving salt, vinegar and some dish soap more toxic than glyphosate.

The IARC has studied 1,003 agents for carcinogeneity, and has found only one – caprolactam, a precursor of nylon – to be probably not carcinogenic to humans (group 4). Its findings were inconclusive due to lack of data in 502 cases (group 3), and 500 agents were classified as possibly carcinogenic (group 2B), probably carcinogenic (group 2A) or definitely carcinogenic (group 1).

The problem with these classifications, according to science writer Ed Yong, is that they’re based only on the strength of the evidence, not on the degree of risk. It says nothing about how dangerous agents are; just whether they pose any danger at all. So, for example, processed meat is classified as “definitely carcinogenic” (group 1), because there is evidence that it poses some risk. It says nothing about the likelihood that it will cause cancer. This classification puts it on a par with smoking, even though smoking is far, far more likely to actually give you cancer.

Formaldehyde is also on the group 1 list, even though it is naturally produced in the atmosphere as well as in the human body. Since it does not evaluate risk, the IARC doesn’t consider the natural occurrence of an agent, the risk of human exposure, or the dose at which one might be exposed. As Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, wrote: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”

When the IARC says “probably”, it really means “there is some evidence, but we cannot be sure”. When it says “possibly”, it really means nothing at all, since it could neither confirm nor disconfirm the possibility that something causes cancer. The majority of agents for which data exists therefore end up on the “possibly causes cancer” list.

One cannot prove a negative, which is why – ironically – no agent should ever be classified as “probably not carcinogenic”. The IARC monograph on caprolactam explicitly states that there was no data at all related to any effects on humans, which means it should have ended up in group 3, not 4. So the only agent that was found not to be carcinogenic, by the IARC’s own standards, was a mistake.

If everything is possibly carcinogenic or worse, then the IARC’s classification is inherently meaningless. It inevitably scares ordinary people, who do not understand the classifications. And it gives bureaucrats virtually unlimited power to regulate things, no matter what the actual risk level is. Worse, an IARC classification as a carcinogen is a lawyer’s wet dream. It routinely leads to mass litigation as people claim, without any evidence, that their cancers were caused by such agents and they therefore deserve damages from companies which use those agents.

The IARC has earned itself such a reputation for finding everything it looks at to be carcinogenic that some politicians are wondering why taxpayers continue to fund it, given its “record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies”.

The IARC says the evidence for carcinogeneity of glyphosate in humans is limited. In lab animals, high doses applied over a long time can cause cancers, but that is true for half of all chemicals ever tested. Remember, the dose makes the poison. As long as you wear indicated safety gear – as one should when applying any herbicide or pesticide – people who use glyphosate will be just fine, and limited exposure is not at all dangerous.

Despite its relative safety, the IARC classified glyphosate in group 2A, as probably carcinogenic. But the same is true for hot water. I kid you not. Hot beverages, above 65°C, are listed as probably carcinogenic to humans. So much for the IARC. Clearly, its work is entirely useless for any purpose other than over-litigation and over-regulation.

Glyphosate got its bad reputation thanks not only to concerted efforts by environmental lobby groups, but also because activists successfully infiltrated regulatory bodies. Consider the case of Chris Portier, a “biostatistician” who believes all sorts of things cause cancer, including cellphones. He became a high-ranking member of the IARC. He engineered a rule-change that disqualified any scientists who have ever consulted for industry, but said nothing about scientists funded by lobby groups. He himself was funded by an environmental lobby group, which was a conflict of interest he did not disclose.

When regulatory bodies are stacked in favour of lobby groups, and exclude scientists with differing opinions, it is no wonder that lobby groups can get the most effective, least toxic, and most popular herbicide on the market banned or listed as carcinogenic. But do not mistake this for science, or for sensible, fact-based regulation.

There have also been lies by omission. Consider Aaron Blair, scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute (of America) who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate. According to Reuters, litigation by cancer victims against Monsanto filed pursuant to the IARC finding revealed that he knew about exculpatory data on glyphosate that would have affected the IARC’s cancer risk finding, but didn’t disclose it. Although it had been available two years before the IARC decision was made, the IARC says it does not consider unpublished research, and the National Cancer Institute told Reuters that it had not been published because of “space constraints”. The internet is full, folks! Pack it up.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that the IARC has asked its academic experts not to release documents, even under Freedom of Information Act requests. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, an agency like the IARC had better do its work in the dark.

The neonicotinoid ban is the result of similar shenanigans. It has become a popular class of pesticides because it is less toxic to larger animals than other types of pesticide, and has less of an environmental impact because it can be applied as a systemic agent to seeds before planting, instead of by traditional spraying. There have been allegations, however, that these “neonics” are effecting the health not only of pests that destroy crops, but of pollinating insects, too.

Yet despite alarming claims over the last decade or so, pollinating bees appear to be doing just fine, as I wrote two years ago. Both in Europe and North America, hive numbers are actually on the increase. Activists would be horrified to hear it, but capitalism saved the bees.

There are threats to bees, and they do include pesticides. After all, neonicotinoids are supposed to kill insects, and bees are insects. However, the the most serious problems with bees in Europe and North America are parasites and disease, not pesticides. In South Africa, the most urgent threats are American Foulbrood Disease and parasitic colonisation of African honeybee hives by Cape honeybees.

Even two recent studies, hailed as the “strongest evidence yet that neonicotinoids are killing bees”, find little more than correlation, and weak correlation at that. According to Jenna Gallegos, writing in the Washington Post, “The differences between bees in treated or untreated fields were largely insignificant, and many of the bees in both groups died before they could be counted.”

Worse, the results were contradictory: one study covered three countries, but in one of them, the use of neonicotinoids actually improved bee health. One can only conclude that any correlation in other regions is a red herring, and does not point to a causal link. Slate ran an excellent debunking of the more alarmist headlines about these studies. Gallegos also notes that the alternative to neonics are pyrethroids and organophosphates that do need to get sprayed, and are more likely to kill bees, along with other animals.

So why did the European Food Safety Agency decide to ban neonicotinoids, and not previous generations of pesticides, which are less specific, more costly, worse for the environment, and more toxic to mammals? David Zaruk, a Belgian environmental health risk policy analyst, has the low-down.

Again, scientists with any industry background at all were excluded from the decision-making process at the EFSA, but three scientists directly associated with environmental lobbying groups were not. They proceeded to set bee research standards that effectively excluded all existing field trial work, which found that neonics posed no significant threat to bee populations, and left intact only laboratory studies that found – surprise, surprise – that insecticides kill insects.

Zaruk also discovered damning evidence (see page three of this document) of an activist agenda at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It lays out a deliberate campaign strategy, involving “carefully selected” authors, who are to prepare several “scientific” research papers that are not to “unintentionally undermine” each other, and are to be published in the journals Science or Nature. A “sister” paper would be submitted to Science simultaneously that would explicitly call for a moratorium on neonicotinoids. This would be followed up by a campaign by “WWF etc.”

This isn’t how science works. As Zaruk points out, real scientists start with evidence, and then form conclusions. They do not start with policy objectives and then commission the evidence needed to support them.

The irony of these cases is that, because they seek to ban the safest, most effective agricultural chemicals available, farmers are forced to revert to older, more harmful chemicals, or face significant crop losses. This ultimately harms the environment and raises food prices.

Activists should not be seen as benign actors who do us all a favour by warning against environmental or health dangers. Some do. But many exaggerate these dangers and infiltrate government agencies to secure laws and regulations that harm both people and the environment. It’s time to stop giving them a free pass, and start treating their claims just like you would treat corporate spin. DM