Officials at the International Agency for Research on Cancer just concluded that Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world, “probably” causes cancer. But way back in 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed studies leading to that conclusion.
Monsanto, the chemical behemoth whose smart marketers came up with such a cute name for poison, responded angrily to the conclusion of the international group which consists of 17 reviewers from around the world. The company said the reviewers were “cherry picking” the data to support their case.
The current situation with talc echoes the opposing views on Roundup. While the FDA has denied petitions to warn women that talc use may increase the risk of ovarian cancer, the international agency concluded in 2007 that talc is “possibly” carcinogenic, a lower level of concern than “probably.”
The international agency also did something in regard to Roundup that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration failed to do with talc: They looked at the raw data of a study of glyphosate (the chemical name for Roundup) and interpreted its results themselves. This lead to a finding of evidence of causing cancer, while the original authors of the study found the opposite.
One of the studies on which the FDA relied in rejecting the labeling petitions was done in 2003 by supposedly impartial researchers from a consulting company, Meta-Analysis Research Group. This group analyzed the results of 16 earlier studies.
The study first concludes that talc is responsible for a 33% increased risk of ovarian cancer for women who uses talc, and then in the next breath, dismisses the finding as caused by “selection bias and/or uncontrolled confounding.”
The FDA quoted these words exactly in its response to the petitions for warning labels.
The lead author of that study was Michael Huncharek, the scientific director of Meta-Analysis Research Group. This firm’s website boasts of a client list including, yes, the baby-powder maker Johnson & Johnson. Meta-Analysis's list of accomplishments hints at more, saying it:
Provided litigation support to a major environmental law firm representing a consumer products company centering on alleged health risks associated with the use of consumer grade talc…and
Successfully represented a major consumer products company before the US FDA in response to a Citizens Petition seeking a cancer warning label on their personal hygiene products.
So it seems we have Dr. Huncharek, to thank for helping to persuade the FDA that no warnings are needed. He is a practicing radiation oncologist, a doctor who administers radiation to cancer victims.
Huncharek’s firm did not respond to an email asking if Johnson & Johnson had paid for the talc study.
So how valid are the conclusions he reached after his analysis? Dr. Daniel Cramer, the researcher who has been studying the link between ovarian cancer and talc for decades, said Huncharek’s group “always concluded the way the sponsor wanted.”
This dispute might have been aired if the FDA had agreed to a hearing on the risks of talc. But when it denied the petition for labeling, it also denied the need for a hearing.
So what’s next? Time, I think, for women to make themselves heard directly. On-line petition anyone?