Changes to EPA Toxicology--Speed or Delay?

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Science  18 Apr 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5874, pp. 304-305
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5874.304b

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has substantially modified the way it updates a database on chemical hazards that influences how chemicals are regulated. The agency says the changes should make the process more transparent and more rigorous, and speedier. But critics argue that the new procedure is more secretive and gives too much clout to federal agencies that pollute or face massive cleanup costs. One result, they say, will be further delays in regulation.

Begun in 1985, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) contains EPA scientists' appraisals of the chronic health effects of more than 540 chemicals. EPA regulators use this information to revise drinking water standards, for example, or set cleanup levels at Superfund sites. Many states and agencies around the world also use the data. “IRIS is the gold standard,” says Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C.

IRIS has sometimes been a battleground. For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) criticized the science behind EPA's draft IRIS document for a solvent called trichloroethylene, which contaminates many military bases. This 2001 draft identified stronger evidence of carcinogenicity and could ultimately force DOD to spend billions more cleaning up polluted aquifers. Since then, the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) started reviewing all IRIS drafts. Many came back with edits that made health effects seem more uncertain, says an EPA official who asked to remain anonymous, whereas other drafts remain in limbo at OMB. On average, documents now take 5.5 years to complete, and the most controversial can stretch to more than a decade.

Three years ago, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson asked his Office of Research and Development (ORD), which runs IRIS, to make the process more predictable and transparent. Under changes announced on 10 April, the public and interested federal agencies now have a chance to comment on IRIS's early “qualitative” drafts. In an added step, federal agencies—but not the public—will get a confidential “sneak preview” of the final draft before it is sent to peer review.

DOD says it's pleased with the changes. The early reviews will enable DOD to resolve questions of scientific uncertainty more quickly and get a head start on managing risks, such as by finding substitute chemicals, predicts Shannon Cunniff, who directs DOD's program on emerging contaminants.

NRDC's Sass worries that the added review will let federal agencies delay the process. She's also concerned that interagency comments on drafts that were previously part of the public record will now be secret. Cunniff says, however, that DOD plans to make public the scientific feedback it sends to EPA. And George Gray, who heads ORD, emphasizes that the final decisions on the content of IRIS documents will remain in EPA's hands. “Anything we do has to be scientifically justified,” he says.

Skeptics remain. In a statement, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called the changes “devastating” and announced that the Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs, plans to conduct an oversight hearing on EPA's toxics program. In addition, the Government Accountability Office will shortly release a study she requested on political influence on IRIS.

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