One of the most important U.S. EPA officials is somebody you probably don't know.
Vincent Cogliano is the new acting director of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, which assesses health risks posed by -- you name it -- automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke, chemicals in drinking water. EPA uses the assessments to guide its regulation writing, the focus of intense scrutiny these days on Capitol Hill.
IRIS, Cogliano said, is "kind of the center of everything EPA does scientifically."
"IRIS is EPA's program to evaluate scientific information on the adverse health effects of chemical contaminants in the environment," he said. "IRIS contains information on more than 500 chemicals and is consulted by scientists and decisionmaking officials in EPA and other environmental health agencies worldwide."
EPA hired Cogliano -- a 59-year-old Washington, D.C., native, who had worked at EPA early in his career -- from the World Health Organization, where for the last seven years he directed a program at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France.
Some of Cogliano's IARC work grabbed headlines. His 2007 report suggesting that women who work through the night are more at risk for cancer led to labor disputes and Denmark employers increasing compensation for women who developed cancer while working night shifts. And then there was a 2009 IARC report linking tanning beds to cancer.
Asked whether EPA can expect such flashy reports from a program few Americans have heard of, he replied, "I won't be looking to do things like that. I think things like that are going to find us."
As examples, Cogliano pointed to IRIS's ongoing assessments of hexavalent chromium, the controversial water contaminant made famous by the 2000 blockbuster movie, "Erin Brockovich." IRIS is also reviewing the effects of inhaling formaldehyde, a common substance in tobacco smoke and automobile exhaust.
The program that Cogliano took over last November has long been dismissed by environmental watchdogs as weak and slow, as evidenced by a large and venerable backlog of chemicals awaiting evaluations. It is also less than well-regarded by the Government Accountability Office, which listed IRIS among "high risk" troubled federal programs (Greenwire, Feb. 16).
Cogliano has plans for revamping IRIS, including streamlining its process for assessing chemicals and making plans to analyze substances that might present future health risks.
His zeal for reforming the program has environmentalists cheering.
"Dr. Cogliano is the right person at the right time for this monumental task," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "IRIS not only needs to ramp up its pace of completing assessments, but it has to update its science to be responsive to many of the recommendations of the National Academies reports."
Sass added that the National Academy of Sciences has advocated using science-based factors to adjust studies and account for data gaps, kids' exposures and other uncertainties -- all recommendations that Sass said IRIS should follow.
'Very good leadership skills'
Cogliano is a numbers guy with a doctorate from Cornell University in operations research, which he describes as "like applied mathematics." He got a bachelor's in math at Catholic University in Washington and pursued a graduate degree also in math at the University of Michigan.
After grad school, Cogliano spent a couple years at IBM before heading to EPA. He was immediately drawn to risk assessment, he said, because it lies at the center of EPA's scientific work.
Cogliano spent 20 years at EPA immersed in toxicology reports that applied to every arm of the agency and learning how the agency sets standards. He says he worked with just about every program office across the country and the enforcement during that time.
"It really was a very broadening experience," he said. "I got to know everyone."
From EPA, Cogliano went to IARC where he set out to repair the reputation of its Monographs program, which is tasked with identifying environmental factors that increase cancer risks. The program, several scientists said, had become an afterthought in the field before Cogliano arrived.
Cogliano reworked the program. He retooled it, streamlined it and aimed it at the most pressing cancer issues.
"He just did an outstanding job pulling together IARC and giving it increased visibility," said Bruce Fowler of the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Cogliano also sought to increase IARC's transparency and was particularly effective in corralling scientists to reach concrete, scientifically sound results.
"He has very good leadership skills," said Bernard Goldstein, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Pittsburgh, who has known Cogliano since his first stint at EPA. "He's very good at getting the scientific community to answer the questions that need to be answered."
Cogliano's personality played a large role in his success at IARC, Fowler added.
"He has a very low profile and personality," he said. "He is very smooth, very polite and thoughtful, but he moves with purpose."
While Cogliano misses a lot about living in France -- being able to live without a car, for one -- he said he is happy to be back at EPA and leading IRIS.
"There is a lot of scrutiny on what IRIS does," he said. "And that scrutiny has taken the form of a lot of oversight and that oversight has the form of a lot of review, a lot of looping back for additional comments."
The process for finalizing assessments of chemicals has been changed, he said, but there is still room for improvement.
Specifically, he said, IRIS documents are long and repetitive, making them "cumbersome to navigate."
"I would hope," he said, "that we can develop them in shorter time periods, people can review them in shorter time periods and we have perhaps more focused discussions of the real issues."
Cogliano will also be looking to expand the types of substances IRIS evaluates.
He noted that IRIS will need to evaluate how exposure to multiple chemicals affects human health cumulatively -- instead of one chemical at a time.
Further, he also wants to study the health effects of nanomaterials, which are roughly 100,000 times thinner than a strand of hair. Nanotechnology is now being used in a wide range of products -- including bicycle frames, paint, clothing and infant pacifiers -- but little is known about its potential health effects.
Cogliano also wants to take a proactive approach to identifying new substances that should be evaluated. The goal, he said, is to identify problem chemicals and substances before it is too late.
"We'll be looking," he said, "at what the environmental problems of the next decades will be and identifying chemicals that will kind of come out of nowhere and all of the sudden be found in everybody's body tissues."