NRDC and EDF blast White House interference in EPA chemical assessment program called IRIS

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will host oversight hearings on EPA Toxic Chemical Policies. Discussions will include new revisions that will delay and weaken the process EPA uses to update the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which provides human health risk information on more than 540 environmental contaminants. NRDC and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) jointly submitted a letter highly critical of these new procedures.

Also today, the independent investigation arm of Congress, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), released the results of its investigation of the IRIS process. The report's findings confirm our fears; the new procedures are likely to gum up the ability of the IRIS program to complete robust credible chemical assessments. The GAO report notes that, "although EPA sent 32 draft assessments for external review in fiscal years 2006 and 2007, the agency finalized only 4 IRIS assessments during this time", and lists the first reason for this delay as, "new [Office of Management and Budget; OMB]-required reviews of IRIS assessments by OMB and other federal agencies".

The new procedures introduce an additional three opportunities for other federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to weigh-in on chemicals determined to be “mission critical,” bringing their total number of intervention points from one to four.  We are very concerned that the new process will introduce delays, derail assessments, and institutionalize the growing influence of federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, that are among the biggest contributors to toxic Superfund sites, as well as hundreds of additional contaminated counties across the country. These agencies have a clear interest in the development of risk assessments that lead to less protective environmental standards.

EPA assessments of regulated chemicals are publicly available on its IRIS database which contains EPA scientific consensus positions on potential human health effects from environmental contaminants. Although not a legal standard, the information from IRIS assessments is used by federal, state, and tribal regulators throughout the US and worldwide, in combination with exposure data, to set limits on toxic chemical releases and set cleanup standards for hazardous waste sites. The IRIS numerical values directly affect the safety of the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil that underlies our homes, schools, businesses, and parks.

The global importance of IRIS assessments is demonstrated by the fact that for the month of April 2008 the database website received on average approximately 600 requests daily from all over the world.

In our letter, NRDC and EDF push EPA to abandon these proposed changes and instead provide sufficient resources for the IRIS program to conduct rigorous, independent, and timely assessments of chemicals that impact human health and the environment, including chemical pollutants of the Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and Department of Energy.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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