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Toronto Epidemiologist Clarifies Stance On Glyphosate And Themes Relevant For Epidemiology

[Ed. Last month we published an article about the categorization of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the related controversy swirling around this issue. In the article, we reported a quote attributed to the University of Toronto’s John McLaughlin saying that despite unpublished negative data he was aware of, this information had not changed his views about the overall categorization of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic. McLaughlin wrote the commentary below to expand on his views.]

Dear Sir,

Thank you EM for the thoughtful update on glyphosate and various media responses, which highlights several themes relevant to the field of epidemiology.

 On the basis of a reporter's online article (by C. Gillam), EM commented that it was "not clear" how I had made a particular decision. I would have gladly spoken with EM, which would have shown close agreement with your main messages and with Dr. Blair's well-reasoned conclusions.

 To clarify where EM was not clear, I stated that: (1) there are merits in making decisions based on all published evidence; (2) I continued to stand by the IARC decision, due to the rigour, comprehensiveness and transparency of the IARC decision- making process; and (3) it is standard practice to re-evaluate past decisions as new evidence emerges.

This leads to a further point that the reporter did not convey, which fits with the 'big picture perspective' noted in EM's conclusion. The essential role for epidemiological evidence in weighing risks and benefits is well appreciated, and EM readers know that to deliver evidence that reliably informs decision-making, studies must meet high quality standards (e.g., requiring strong designs, large sample sizes, detailed exposure information, covariate adjustment, replication, etc.). What is not widely recognized is that even with global interest and many decades of use, there are very few human studies that can contribute substantially to cancer hazard assessments for many environmental exposures. Accordingly, this 'big picture perspective' could also consider the forces that influence research investments, and with broad stakeholder engagement and partnerships would better support the epidemiological community in addressing society's needs, while also delivering sustainable systems that can answer important questions of the future.

John McLaughlin
Chief Science Officer
Ontario Public Health
University of Toronto

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