A World Health Organization committee that evaluates the cancer-causing potential of chemicals had the foxes guarding the chicken coop, charged a health-advocacy organization.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that a recent favorable evaluation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the artificial sweetener saccharin was "unscientific" because the review committee was dominated by industry employees and consultants.
IARCs action may pave the way for the U.S. government to remove saccharin from the cancer list and to remove the cancer warning from foods containing saccharin. The executive committee of the governments National Toxicology Program (NTP), which maintains the American list of cancer-causing chemicals, will be meeting on Wednesday to vote on whether saccharin is a carcinogen. A year ago, NTPs board of outside scientists voted to keep saccharin on the cancer list.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, charged that long-time defenders of saccharin dominated IARCs 26-member committee. He said that half of the participants in the meeting were tied to industry.
A key committee member was Samuel Cohen, a University of Nebraska researcher whose studies on saccharin were relied upon heavily by IARC for its decision. Cohens research has been funded, in part, by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry group whose sponsors include Cumberland Packing (maker of Sweet N Low saccharin products), Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.
Representatives of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, Procter & Gamble, ILSI, and BIBRA (a British testing laboratory and consulting company) were also on the committee. Others included S. Fukushima, Japanese researcher who co-authored with Cohen several papers on saccharin; Charles C. Capen, Ohio State University, who consults for food-additive companies and co-authored ILSI pathology books; and Lawrence Fishbein of Fairfax, Virginia, who also wrote an ILSI book. R.H. Adamson, of the National Soft Drink Association, and representatives of Eastman Kodak and Zeneca, a British drug and agrichemical-company, were non-voting participants.
Those pro-industry members, CSPI charged, were not balanced by even a single person nominated by consumer or environmental organizations. IARC rejected CSPIs request to nominate a scientist to participate as a non-voting member of the committee.
The review itself was a "sham that puts consumers at risk," charged Jacobson. He said, "The review was rigged, the outcome predictable. The committee inappropriately ignored or dismissed all the evidence that saccharin caused cancer in humans or animals, except for the well-accepted link to bladder cancer in male rats. In the case of bladder cancer, IARC endorsed Cohens and industrys contention that those tumors are due to the unusual composition of male rats urine and irrelevant for humans.
In a letter to Secretary Donna Shalala, CSPI and several scientists urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which provides funding to IARC, to demand that IARC withdraw its report and appoint a new, balanced committee to reexamine saccharin. If IARC fails to agree, Jacobson said, the federal government should withdraw its funding.
The letter to Shalala was signed by Jacobson and by Richard Clapp, Boston University; Marvin Legator, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston; William Lijinsky, former director of the National Cancer Institutes chemical carcinogenesis program; and Melvin D.
Reuber, a former staff pathologist at the National Cancer Institute.
IARCs decision on saccharin, and the NTP vote this week, have implications well beyond saccharin. The saccharin case may serve as a precedent for ruling that numerous other chemicals that have caused cancer in animals will be considered safe for humans.
Jacobson said, "The evidence on saccharin is mixed, with some studies indicating it causes cancer and others suggesting it doesnt. In light of the uncertainty, officials concerned about the public health should continue to consider saccharin a potential carcinogen and not do anything that would increase its use. Doing otherwise would only jeopardize consumers health."
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