Glyphosate should not be classed as a carcinogen: ECHA

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages
© GettyImages

Related tags Food safety authority European commission European union Risk

In a long awaited opinion, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) said, on the available scientific evidence, there were no grounds to classify the controversial herbicide, glyphosate, as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.

The ECHA's Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) reached this conclusion after carrying out an extensive evaluation of all the information that was available on this substance, said Tim Bowmer, chair of the RAC.

“RAC agreed with the German dossier submitter that glyphosate should not be classified as a carcinogen, that is as a substance causing cancer. This conclusion was based on both the human evidence and on the weight of the evidence of all the animal studies reviewed.”

The Committee’s opinion was adopted by consensus; there were no minority positions, he added.

ECHA said its remit was only to look at whether glyphosate had the potency to cause cancer – it didn’t look at the risk for humans to exposure, saying that aspect is up to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to evaluate.

Wide consultation 

The RAC only held its first preparatory discussion on the harmonized classification and labelling of glyphosate in December last year. Then, it invited six interested parties to present to the full committee including EFSA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the joint FAO/WHO meeting on pesticide residues (JMPR), and the industry backed glyphosate task force (GTF).

“We have attempted at all phases to actively involve all stakeholders in this, within reason. The Committee had to come to its own decision in the end,”​ said Bowmer, during a press briefing.

Arie Karjalainen, scientific officer, ECHA, told reporters the RAC took into account the studies that IARC had assessed to reach its finding, in 2015, that glyphosate is a probable cause of cancer, but he said RAC went even broader than IARC in the animal studies it evaluated. 

'No pressure from the outside to speed things up'

A spokesperson for ECHA told this publication there was no surprise in the timing of the opinion: 

In the EU glyphosate is an herbicide, mainly used to combat weeds. For cereals, and in other crops, glyphosate is used in pre-planting, after harvest and before sowing, and in pre-emergence, which is the period after sowing and before crop emergence.

Under some conditions and, if needed, glyphosate can also be used in pre-harvest, to clean the field and allow harvest of arable crops.

Other uses for glyphosate are for no-till and min-till or to combat alien invasive species.

“We had expected it to be finalized in either the March or June meeting of the RAC this year.

“It is hard to predict how much time the scientific discussions will take, it depends on many factors. As it turned out, the committee was ready to take the decision already at this meeting (March 2017). There has been no pressure from the outside to speed things up,”​ he said.

The spokesperson said the agency expects the full opinion to be published on the ECHA website in around 10 to 15 weeks’ time - it has still to be edited and then it will be formally submitted to the Commission.

Reauthorization of glyphosate 

Last June, the European Commission said it would only extend the EU license for the weed killer by 18 months, and would then look to renew it for longer or otherwise pending the outcome of the ECHA safety assessment of the substance. 

The EU executive will make a decision on whether to renew the license for the use of glyphosate as an active substance in pesticides later this year.

Jack de Bruijn, director, risk management at ECHA, in response to questions about the influence the RAC’s findings may have on the Commission’s reauthorization decision said: “On the major end points that are under debate, carcinogenicity and toxicity for reproduction, there is a very clear conclusion from the Committee that the substance should not be classified accordingly and, therefore, I think that will have a major input in the decision making done by the Commission.

“Are there uncertainties? Yes, there are always uncertainties and these have been addressed very carefully by the Committee and also will be described in the opinion, but their overall final conclusion was there is no classification needed and that is an important element, which the Commission will take forward.”

'No conflict of interest' 

He said ECHA was very confident there was no issue at all in the independence of the opinion when asked about lobbying pressures: “We have made sure that no specific lobbying has taken place towards the individual committee members,”​ said de Bruijn.

The classification is not subject to a review period, said Bowmer. “It would take a large shift in the evidence to warrant reopening,”​ he added.

Disparity in findings 

The renewal of glyphosate’s authorization in the EU has been hotly debated since the World Health Organization’s cancer experts (IARC) said in March 2015 the substance was a probable cause of cancer.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) contradicted the IARC findings in November 2015.

Meanwhile, a joint FAO/WHO meeting on pesticide residues (JMPR) in May 2016 concluded glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet. 

Yesterday, IARC said its evaluation of glyphosate is not affected by the ECHA review. It added that it does not comment on the expertise, methodology, or conclusions of other national or international committees.

'Lab rats of the chemical industry'

Reacting to the RAC findings, Greenpeace claimed the ECHA commitee rejected "glaring scientific evidence of cancers in laboratory animals, ignored warnings by more than 90 independent scientists, and relied on unpublished studies commissioned by glyphosate producers."

Greenpeace EU food policy director, Franziska Achterberg, said: “ECHA has gone to great lengths to sweep all evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer under the carpet. The data vastly exceeds what’s legally necessary for the EU to ban glyphosate, but ECHA has looked the other way. For the EU to make decisions based on science, it can’t distort the facts. If the EU doesn’t get this right, people and the environment will continue to be the lab rats of the chemical industry.”

Like the EFSA assessment, the ECHA opinion was based on an initial dossier prepared by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). "BfR’s glyphosate assessment has been heavily criticised by NGOs​ and independent scientists​, who said it contradicted the scientific evidence,"​ added Greenpeace.

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