EPA and OMB slow toxic chemical risk studies

Changes to the risk assessment procedures have been delayed, and transparency has been swept away in the process

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) lengthened and complicated the government’s process for assessing the potential dangers of toxic chemicals, according to a March 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Though hundreds of new chemicals enter the marketplace each year, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database, which is used to develop human risk assessments, includes information on only about 540 of them. The GAO found that while the EPA set a goal for finalizing 50 such chemical risk assessments annually, the agency had fallen well behind, with only four finalized over the previous two years. Yet recent changes to IRIS not only delayed the process, according to the GAO, but swept away transparency. The new rules allow other executive agencies to sit in from the beginning of the assessment process, including the Department of Defense, which has a multibillion-dollar interest in the decision to regulate and clean up certain chemicals.

The rules also allow these agencies to perform and sponsor their own research or even suspend the assessment process for up to 18 months. Authority over interagency review goes to OMB. Changes made to these assessments during the interagency process are not disclosed, because OMB considers them to be internal executive branch communications; they are therefore not made available to the public. OMB says this practice protects the “deliberative” process. The GAO’s investigation, however, said the practice “lack[s] transparency” and “limits . . . credibility.” An analyst at government watchdog OMB Watch summarized the approach as extending the OMB’s role from making decisions based on risks to also assessing those risks themselves. The OMB, meanwhile, maintains that the EPA has final authority. “We recognize that people outside of EPA use this system and have significant knowledge and expertise to offer,” the EPA formally stated. “These improvements to the IRIS process will ensure that we continue to have assessments of the highest quality and a system that’s easy to understand and participate in.”

Follow-up:
Four months after a House subcommittee hearing, Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, introduced the Integrated Risk Information System Authorization Act in September 2008 to produce more scientific information on chemicals. That legislation awaits consideration. The GAO again highlighted its own recommendation for more transparent practices in a presidential transition report released in November. In December, a National Research Council report found that EPA’s risk assessment process “is bogged down by unprecedented challenges” and “should be streamlined to ensure the appropriate use of available science, technical accuracy, and tailoring to the specific needs of the problem.”

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