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US Lawmakers To Investigate WHO Cancer Agency, Question NIH Officials About Funding

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A congressional committee will question officials from the U.S. government's health research agency concerning the taxpayers funding a World Health Organization cancer agency which faces criticism over its criteria for carcinogen classifications.

An assistant of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government informed Reuters that representatives from National Institutes of Health (NIH) agreed to give personal briefing to the committee. This happened as a result of lawmakers raising questions over its grants to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a semi-autonomous entity part of the World Health Organization from Lyon, France.

During the past years, the agency has applied an ambiguous policy in its classifications, creating controversy over certain substances and objects that may cause cancer. Among these, coffee, mobile phones, processed meat and glyphosate (weed killer) were the most popular.

The argument is that the agency "is sometimes too quick to conclude that substances might cause cancer, causing unnecessary health scares. It defends its methods as scientifically sound."

The Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz sent the NIH director Francis Collins a letter in September, questioning the reasons for still funding IARC, especially since the NIH has a $33 billion annual budget.

"IARC's standards and determinations for classifying substances as carcinogenic, and therefore cancer-causing, appear inconsistent with other scientific research, and have generated much controversy and alarm," explained Chaffetz.

Emailing Reuters about the issue, the NIH confirmed receiving the letter and engaging to respond to the committee.

Reuters was further informed that a letter had already been sent on Oct. 5, on behalf of the agency's director, Chris Wild, to the NIH, addressing these "misconceptions" that gravitate around IARC's activity.

The contents of the letter reject Chaffetz's criticism and states that the IARC classifications, also known as monographs, are "widely respected for their scientific rigor, standardized and transparent process and ... freedom from conflicts of interest."

Concerning the accusations for the classifications of coffee, the case constituted a "retraction," according to Wild. While previously thought to be possibly carcinogenic, a report published in June this year showed no conclusive evidence towards this classification, relabeling it as non-carcinogenic. The basis for this reevaluation of coffee is the 25 years of evidence since its first classification, according to Wild.

Regardless of this highly specific answer, Chaffetz's requirement to the NIH to detail the standards for awarding grants and vetting still remains. Along with it, the institute is also asked to fully disclose the funds that went to IARC or in relation to it.

Should these suspicions be grounded, a large part of the IARC's funding would be at risk.

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