WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2016 - When the Scientific Advisory Panel begins four days of meetings next week to examine the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate, Christopher Portier won’t be there.
But his brother Kenneth, whom EPA picked to serve as one of the scientists reviewing the world’s most widely used herbicide, will be in attendance.
And that has the crop-protection industry concerned.
Christopher Portier, former director of the U.S. National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, served as an “invited specialist” on the International Agency for Research on Cancer panel that determined glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
He has been a lightning rod for criticism since the IARC assessment came out in March 2015 and sparked a worldwide pushback from principal manufacturer Monsanto and the ag chemical industry in general to prove that it is not.
The European Food Safety Authority released its own analysis, which concluded glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic, after which Portier led a group of 95 scientists who wrote a letter to EFSA and published a study disputing that characterization and taking issue with EFSA’s methodology.
Christopher’s brother, Kenneth Portier, is also a scientist: He’s vice president of the Statistics & Evaluation Center at the American Cancer Society, and has served on more than 60 Scientific Advisory Panels for EPA.
Despite those qualifications, his family ties have CropLife America raising questions about the SAP.
“It's hard to know if it’s a fair panel,” said Janet Collins, CLA’s senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs, when asked about the SAP members last week. (Technically, the appointed scientists are members of the Science Review Board. The SAP is a permanent body that contributes a few of its members to panels that examine issues arising under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.)
When questioned specifically about Kenneth Portier, Collins noted that Christopher Portier has been “leading the charge” in defending IARC’s monograph and speculated that the brothers have “probably talked about” this area of common interest.
“I’m not intending to call this particular gentleman out,” she said, referring to Kenneth Portier. “I'm not in any way disparaging him or his credentials.” But she added, “There appears to be a conflict of interest.”
“Somebody who wanted to could argue that he shouldn’t be on the panel,” she said.
Agri-Pulse could not reach Kenneth Portier for comment, but Christopher defended his brother’s credentials. In a phone interview, he said that Kenneth is “perfectly well qualified” to be on the glyphosate SAP.
“I don’t believe anybody in their right mind would say he’s not perfectly qualified. If they’re trying to say he’s biased, good luck, how are you going to prove it?”
“My brother chaired EPA’s SAP for seven years,” he continued. “Nobody has ever questioned his integrity or his scientific acumen – in fact, his statistical acumen. They’re welcome to question it now, but they’re just going to get a lot of negative feedback on it because he’s done an excellent job for EPA over the years.”
Portier also said that he and his brother don’t always see eye to eye. “He doesn’t agree with everything I believe,” Christopher said.
Asked whether he had spoken with his brother about glyphosate, Christopher Portier said, “In broad terms. I told him it’s a battle between hazard and risk, and that he does understand.”
“It’s always an interesting tactic, I find, to change the message,” Christopher said. “The message is not what I’m saying is wrong, the message becomes, ‘But his brother’s on the panel.’ I’d prefer if they’d come straight at me and come after my message.”
Portier also addressed the criticism that because he works part time for the Environmental Defense Fund – and did at the time of the IARC review – that his involvement with the IARC monograph is somehow tainted.
“I work for them two days a week, mostly on air pollution and air pollution modeling, and on climate change and climate change modeling.” The work, he said, has “nothing to do with pesticides.”
“Nobody has paid me a cent to do what I’m doing with glyphosate,” he said. “I have no conflict of interest whatsoever.”
Christopher Portier has submitted comments to EPA in advance of the SAP meeting, at which the scientists will consider the studies and methods used by EPA to conclude in a recent paper that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic.
In his comments, Portier said EPA incorrectly downplayed the significance of rat and mouse studies because of the size of the doses, even though the doses did not exceed 5 percent of the animals’ body weight.
The data he examined, he said, “demonstrate an association in humans to (non-Hodgkin lymphoma), evidence in rats for thyroid tumors, and very strong evidence in mice for renal tumors, hemangiosarcomas and malignant lymphomas. EPA’s exclusion of doses above 1,000 mg/kg/day is unscientific and their argument of a lack of significance above this dose is unsupported.”
Also commenting were some of the scientists who recently prepared a paper that found glyphosate is not likely be carcinogenic. Intertek Scientific and Regulatory Consultancy Services put together the panel for that paper on commission from Monsanto.
That paper said that “even without data IARC did not include, there is no support for IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.’”
In their comments, five of the 15 scientists on the Intertek panel praised EPA for “an excellent and thorough review of glyphosate.”
“We agree with the agency that it is important to give more weight to studies evaluating endpoints that measured gene mutations and chromosomal aberrations (i.e. permanent DNA damage) than to endpoints reflecting DNA events that may be transient or reversible such as primary DNA damage (e.g., comet assays),” they said.
The SAP meeting will be held Oct. 18-21 in Arlington, Virginia. The online docket for the meeting is here.
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