OTTAWA _ The resignation of a scientific adviser from the federal pesticide regulator is yet another example of industry having too much influence at Health Canada, the NDP’s health critic is alleging.
Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a health-sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, stepped down as co-chair of the department’s scientific advisory committee on pest control products late last month.
He cited concerns over the role the pesticide industry plays in the regulatory process, pointing to a tendency to favour industry-provided data over broader, independent studies.
NDP heath critic Don Davies said the issues Lanphear raised in his resignation letter are alarming and dangerous.
Davies noted that in February a board member and the executive director of Canada’s drug-price regulator also resigned, alleging that industry pressure stalled reforms to lower the cost of patented medicines.
He said in a statement that Lanphear’s decision to leave is “yet another high-profile resignation” due to the “over-influence” of industry representation.
“This resignation is yet another example of a Liberal government that chooses to place the profits of industry ahead of the interests and safety of Canadians.”
The office of Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos did not comment on what Davies had to say.
The scientific advisory committee on pest control was launched in July 2022 as part of a reform effort to improve transparency at the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which is an arm of Health Canada.
The committee gives Health Canada independent scientific advice on the health and environmental risks of pesticides and evaluates new products. It has so far met five times.
“There’s no question historically and today that industry has too much influence over policy decisions around pesticides and toxic chemicals,” Lanphear said in an interview Wednesday.
The problem is systemic, he said, and has to do with the way drugs, pesticides and other chemicals are approved.
When a new product is ready to come on the market, the manufacturers’ studies are used to deem the chemical safe or not. Studies that prove products are unsafe for humans can take many years, Lanphear said.
“What we’ve really done is we’ve set up a system that basically says, ‘Until proven otherwise, industry can use these chemicals in commerce.”’
That means millions of people are being exposed in a “massive experiment for which nobody’s given consent,” he said.
He also took issue with the agency allowing pesticide manufacturers to sit on a separate advisory council.
“It seems to me that no public health agency that purports to protect consumers _ whether it’s from pesticides, toxic chemicals, unsafe food, drugs _ should have anybody with a financial conflict of interest on their advisory board or committee,” he said.
In the case of the resignations from the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, its members had been in the process of consulting on the finer points of new rules that would effectively lower the cost of drugs in Canada.
The reforms were shelved after a pharmaceutical industry group requested further consultations and Duclos wrote to the board’s acting chair to suggest the process be paused to give drug companies, patient groups, provincial ministers and himself more time to understand the changes.
Board member Matthew Herder resigned, and later told the House of Commons health committee that the independence of the board had been undermined.
“The line between consultation and conflicts of interest has become completely blurred under the industry’s influence,” Herder told the committee in May.”
“Unless we start taking conflicts of interest far more seriously, meaningful pricing reform will be impossible.”
Duclos has said repeatedly that he did not put undue pressure on the board.
When it comes to the pesticide agency, Health Canada has said the Pest Management Regulatory Agency takes advice from the science advisory committee, academic experts, pesticide manufacturers, growers and environmental and health groups.
All decisions are ultimately made by the agency alone.
The scientific advisory committee was initially set up to answer the regulatory agency’s questions, but Lanphear and other members argued that the scientists should be able to explore their own questions about pesticide regulation as well.
Lanphear had pushed to study a high-profile failure of the regulatory process involving the 1970 approval of the controversial insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is now being phased out in Canada. He said his repeated request was denied.
He didn’t blame the staff, he said, but systemic constraints within the agency.
“It worried me and I think that’s perhaps one of the overriding concerns about industry influence,” he said.
“If a pesticide regulatory agency is constrained from talking about some of the most controversial pesticides that we now know are toxic, like chlorpyrifos, how can ? we really expect them to protect us?” he said.
The committee wasn’t exactly denied, Lanphear’s fellow co-chair, Valerie Langlois, said Wednesday, but rather was told to start with a simpler pesticide example.
“Hopefully, in the next year, we’ll be able to tackle the more sensitive one,” said Langlois, an ecotoxicogenomics professor at L’Institut national de la recherche scientifique.
When the committee of independent scientists meets, pesticide manufacturers often attend, she said, but don’t interfere with their work.
Still, she does share some of Lanphear’s concerns about the role of the pesticide industry on the regulatory process.
“I personally think that when there’s new molecules, these compounds should be given out to independent researchers so there’s balanced study design … and also output coming from different parties,” she said.
A new co-chair was appointed to the scientific advisory board to replace Lanphear on Tuesday.
Health Canada said in a statement that the agency would take the “change in leadership” as an opportunity to review the committee’s terms of reference.
“This process will continue in order to ensure that (the agency) is obtaining scientific advice on questions that are most important to both the committee members and the regulator.”
The agency is working to strengthen the oversight and protection of human health and the environment when it comes to pesticides, the department said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.