Trump-Pruitt EPA Moves to Kill Chemical Hazard Program, IRIS

The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with protecting human health and the environment—it says so right in the mission statement on its “About EPA” web page. It even gets a bit specific: “EPA's purpose is to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work”.

One of its most important programs to carry out this mission is the EPA Integrated Risk Information System, IRIS. It identifies which industrial chemical pollutants can harm us, what kinds of harm they can cause (the hazard identification assessment, such as cancers, birth defects, etc), and how much exposure can lead to how much harm (the dose-response assessment). The IRIS program is not regulatory in itself—it is science information only. This information is subsequently put together with site-specific exposure information to conduct a risk assessment and ultimately inform risk management decisions, policies, and regulations.

The polluting chemical industry has long hated this program because IRIS assessments are used by EPA’s various offices—air, water, solid waste, toxics, and others—as well as local and state  governments all over the country and all over the world to set clean up levels and emissions limits for toxic chemicals (see NRDC Delay Game report). The program enjoyed a recent very favorable review from the EPA Science Advisory Board.  If there was no IRIS program, it would be much harder for governments to set limits on all kinds of industrial pollution.

Now the Trump-Pruitt-Beck EPA has figured out a way to kill the IRIS program:  put it under the direction and control of the chemical industry lobbyist running EPA’s Toxics Office, Nancy Beck. Beck has already demonstrated she is not qualified to run the IRIS program—earlier in her polluter-friendly career Beck authored the fatally flawed Risk Assessment Bulletin that was rejected by the Bush Administration federal agencies and the National Academies.

Since the chemical industry essentially took control of the Toxics Office, the entire program for implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been re-oriented toward enacting the preferred policies of the toxic chemical manufacturers—despite their likely illegality and their inconsistency with EPA mission (see above). This will make it easy for Trump’s political team to similarly divert and destroy the IRIS program.

The IRIS program is one of the very few independent, non-industry funded programs for analyzing the potential harm of toxic chemicals. It is for exactly that reason that the chemical manufacturers and their representatives within the Trump-Pruitt EPA are now moving to kill it.  If the industry is successful in killing IRIS (and their sights are also set on a few other independent chemical assessment programs), there will be much less credible scientific evidence and analysis available for accurately assessing the dangers posed by chemicals.  It won’t mean that the toxic chemicals in your toys, furniture and drinking water aren’t going to hurt you, it just means that you won’t know about it. 

As detailed by my colleague, Daniel Rosenberg, under EPA Administrator Pruitt, the TSCA program is already being slated for delay, dysfunction, and demise. Although EPA had previously proposed to cancel specific uses of three highly toxic solvents—Trichloroethylene (TCE), methylene chloride (MC), and n-methylpyrollidone (NMP), because they pose an unreasonable risk to health, the Trump-Pruitt EPA is putting all three rules into a deep freeze from which they are unlikely to ever return. (see details in the NY Times).

Administrator Pruitt continues to aggressively work in opposition to the stated mission of his Agency and is instead walking—running—away from both the science and the policies that would provide a long-overdue measure of protection to consumers, workers, and families.

EPA is currently developing its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 and, and we expect it to include a transfer of the resources of the IRIS program into the TSCA budget, where both will ultimately be dealt death blows by Administrator Pruitt and the polluting chemical industries that bankroll politicians. Congress should reject this proposal when it is sent to the Hill for consideration.  

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

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

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