U.S. EPA Changes Chemical Risk Assessment Process

WASHINGTON, DC, April 10, 2008 (ENS) – The U.S. EPA says it is expanding the process for recommending that a chemical be assessed for risk of harm to human health or the environment, “to increase its transparency and efficiency.”

But the senator who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee says the changes really put the risk assessment process directly under the control of the White House.

“In my judgment, these changes to the EPA’s risk assessment program are devastating,” said Senator Barbara Boxer of California who announced she will call a committee oversight hearing to examine the agency’s entire toxics program.

“They put politics before science by letting the White House and federal polluters derail EPA’s scientific assessment of toxic chemicals,” she said. “In the near future, the Government Accountability Office will be issuing a study that I requested, which addresses these issues, and we anticipate an oversight hearing on the EPA’s toxics program shortly.”

The Integrated Risk Information System, IRIS, provides human health risk information describing the potential adverse health effects that may result from exposure to over 540 environmental contaminants.

IRIS includes descriptions of hazard identification and dose-response information, quantitative risk estimates for chronic non-cancer and cancer effects, and access to searchable scientific documentation.

The revisions to the IRIS process for developing chemical assessments announced today will include “listening sessions to allow for the broader participation and engagement of interested parties; and an even more rigorous scientific peer review of IRIS assessments.”

EPA contractors in hazard gear examine
the chemicals found on a suspect
property. (Photo courtesy EPA)

The EPA calls it “an expanded process for recommending a substance be assessed,” and promises “the earlier involvement” of other agencies and the public.

Dr. George Gray, assistant administrator of the Office of Research and Development, who announced the changes today, says he is “confident that these improvements will help our high quality risk assessment process become even more accessible to the scientific community.”

“We recognize that people outside of EPA use this system and have significant knowledge and expertise to offer,” said Gray. “Today’s improvements to the IRIS process will ensure that we continue to have assessments of the highest quality and a process that’s easy to understand and participate in.”

Sounds harmless, but Senator Boxer doesn’t think so.

Boxer says the policy released today “gives federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, which is a major polluter, a privileged seat at the table to determine which chemicals get assessed and how those assessments are conducted.”

The senator says the change “formalizes a new process to be run by the White House that would take place behind closed doors due to the administration’s refusal to make federal agency comments public.”

Federal, state and international agencies use risk assessments to create public health protections, including drinking water standards, toxic waste cleanup levels, air pollution limits, controls on dangerous chemicals in food and consumer products, worker protections and other safeguards, Boxer points out.

Reforming the IRIS process has been an important goal of EPA Administrator,Stephen Johnson, as reflected in his Action Plan, the agency said in its announcement today.

Gray’s office says the changes were made to “create a more predictable, streamlined, and transparent process for conducting IRIS assessments.”

“A major goal is to define the important role that public and interagency comments and interactions play in the process, and to foster greater communication and sharing of relevant scientific information between experts, interested parties, and EPA,” the agency announcement states.

A one-step access to the major parts of the database has been designed into the online system so the quickviews, the summaries, the toxicological reviews, and the tracking database are more accessible, the agency says.

EPA has also, for the first time, initiated a “data call in” for information to support its literature review of a chemical, and is seeking public comment on this review.

No doubt these features will all be open for comment during the upcoming Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

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