EPA lags on tackling risk-review backlog -- report

Despite making "modest progress" on expediting its risk assessments of hazardous chemicals under President Obama, U.S. EPA remains decades behind in clearing its backlog of still-unreviewed pollutants, according to a report released today by a nonprofit watchdog group.

The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) rapped EPA's process for completing reviews of chemicals listed on its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) -- billed by the agency as a database of "the highest quality science-based human health assessments" -- as too cumbersome despite a revamp announced last year by Administrator Lisa Jackson.

"Unfortunately, IRIS is woefully incomplete," CPR wrote in its collaborative report. "EPA is many years behind in meeting statutory mandates for completing profiles of at least 255 chemicals, and as a result regulatory and enforcement action related to those chemicals has been stalled."

IRIS assessments rarely make major headlines but are often used by local regulators and green groups in debates over toxics regulation. Recently, however, EPA's multistep framework for adding new information to the chemical clearinghouse has come under fire from a key House Democrat and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Perhaps the most controversial element of the IRIS process is its allowance for interagency dialogue on new chemical risk data, which CPR and other advocacy groups have blasted in the past as an opening for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to exert undue influence over assessments. Jackson's 2009 overhaul of IRIS aimed to tackle that problem by making public all comment from other agencies on chemical reviews and ensuring they focus on science-based issues (E&ENews PM, May 21, 2009).


But CPR found considerable room for further strengthening of EPA's hold over IRIS work, calling on the agency to ax the interagency consultation entirely. EPA, the group concluded, has let the IRIS process mire as it works "to produce assessments that are so robust as to be immunized against criticism from outside interests."

CPR's other recommendations to EPA include the establishment of a "statute-driven" framework for determining which chemicals are prioritized for risk reviews and further support from Jackson for "adequate resources" that would allow the agency to pick up its pace of IRIS completions.

EPA finished nine IRIS assessments last year, a significant uptick from the annual average of two under the Bush administration. Even as it pushed for more clarity on the viability of Jackson's two-year deadline for finishing new chemical review, GAO praised the agency last year for its work to restore "the integrity and productivity" of the database (E&ENews PM).

Among the chemicals that still await inclusion in IRIS, according to CPR, are 32 of the 188 hazardous air pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act, three of 71 chemicals listed under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and 87 of the 275 toxins deemed "high profile" by federal scientists due to their level of occurrence at Superfund sites.

In a statement, EPA said it's reviewing the CPR report and touted IRIS as “a highly regarded resource for human health risk information on more than 550 environmental contaminants.” Since Jackson took the helm, the agency added, “the IRIS program has been reinvigorated with a new streamlined assessment development process. Significant progress has been made toward addressing both new assessments and updating others.”

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who investigated the database in his capacity as outgoing chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee's oversight subpanel, said in a statement that he was "disappointed that IRIS is still too slow and cumbersome."

"There is no room for politics in assessing the public health risk from exposure to a toxic chemical," Miller said. "We can't wait for clusters of rare cancers or birth defects to tell us the consequences of a chemical exposure."

Click here to read the full CPR report.

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