Critics Fear New EPA Risk Assessment Can Enable Corporate, Political Manipulation

April 14, 2008
EPA's newly revised process for assessing health and environmental risks for chemicals enables chemical manufacturers and federal agencies to inject “corporate influence” into determinations that will affect public health, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

On April 10, EPA announced it was revising its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which provides human health risk information describing the potential adverse health effects that may result from exposure to over 540 environmental contaminants. The assessments are used to develop toxic clean-up criteria, safe drinking water standards, occupational exposure levels and other essential public health protections.

Revisions to the IRIS process include:

  • Expanding the process for recommending the assessment of a substance;
  • Involving other agencies and the public at an earlier stage;
  • Hosting “listening sessions” to allow broader participation and engagement of interested parties; and
  • Implementing an even more rigorous scientific peer review of IRIS assessments.

Dr. George Gray, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development, said the changes were intended to make the assessments "more predictable, streamlined and transparent." He was “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. "[The] 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."

PEER: Industry and Polluting Agencies Earn Key Roles in Assessment Process

PEER, however, said the revised methods pushes aside government research in favor of industry-funded research. The organization fears that consequences may include:

  • Affected corporations will be intimately involved in each step of EPA's risk assessment and will know which staff members are assigned to particular work, making the agency “research plan” vulnerable to political manipulation through the appropriations process.
  • The Defense and Energy Departments will have a formal role on how pollutants, such as the chemical perchlorate, are evaluated. In addition, these agencies could declare a particular chemical to be "mission critical,” allowing them to control how data gaps are filled. All intra-and inter-agency communications on risk assessments are deemed deliberative and thus confidential.
  • The White House Office of Management and Budget would control both the substance and timing of final decisions on chemical risk assessments.

"Under this system, every chemical risk assessment is a special interest scrum," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former EPA scientists and attorney. "Had this process been in place, the tobacco industry would have stopped EPA from declaring secondhand smoke a lung cancer risk."

Boxer: Changes are “Devastating”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, agreed that the changes put the risk assessment process directly under the control of the White House and give federal agencies such as the Department of Defense (a major polluter, according to Boxer's statement) “a privileged seat at the table to determine which chemicals get assessed and how those assessments are conducted.”

"In my judgment, these changes to the EPA’s risk assessment program are devastating," said Boxer, who also 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.”

Boxer also said she requested that the Government Accountability Office conduct a study on this issue and expects that the report will be released “in the near future.”

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