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Increasing health risks by discrediting government science

Posted by Kathy Attar, MPH on August 4, 2014

Recently the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee on Oversight and the Environment held a joint hearing to discuss the status of reforms to EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). What is IRIS and how is the public's health impacted by this program?

IRIS was created to address the lack of information on the potential toxicity of new and existing chemicals and their influence on human health. It is responsible for reviewing the scientific literature to determine which chemicals are harmful and at what doses. Through the IRIS Program, EPA provides human health assessments to support the Agency's regulatory activities. Federal agencies, state and international agencies, and others rely on IRIS assessments for setting regulatory standards, establishing exposure guidelines, and estimating risks to exposed populations. So despite its obscurity, IRIS influences the fate of many chemicals as they move through the regulatory and policymaking process. Not surprisingly, it receives intense scrutiny from industry.

Unfortunately, IRIS finalizes its assessments at an unacceptably slow rate. There are presently over 80,000 industrial chemicals already in use, and hundreds of new chemicals enter commerce every year. Since 1987, IRIS has completed evaluations on only 557 of them.

Organizations such as the American Chemistry Council have an interest in keeping IRIS unproductive and in discrediting its work (and the overall science) at EPA. For quite some time they and others in the chemical industry have tried to slow the IRIS assessment process and cast doubt on claims that particular chemicals adversely impact health. One example is IRIS' assessment of arsenic, that was started in 2000 and is still not complete despite the EPA and the World Health Organization declaring arsenic a carcinogen and it being linked to birth defects among other serious health problems. The arsenic assessment was essentially slowed down by Congress on behalf of several pesticide companies that use the toxic chemical in their herbicides (Learn more about industry's influence and arsenic by reading Center for Public Integrity's article) As a result, proposed bans of the chemical in herbicides by EPA were halted.

Another vehicle for impeding IRIS assessments has been the National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academies of Science. Congressional opponents of IRIS have requested the NRC to conduct review upon review of IRIS assessments, often resulting in lengthy delays. Over the last decade, NRC has been asked to review IRIS appraisals of formaldehyde, dioxin, and tetrachloroethylene. In each case the NRC largely supported EPA's findings, but at the cost of substantial delays and the public's health. 

Interestingly, the NRC also offered direction on how IRIS might improve its overall assessment process. An NRC report released this May praised the substantial improvement made by EPA in addressing issues that had been raised about the IRIS process. Despite this validation, the implication is often made that EPA is routinely conducting flawed science. This reflects a larger strategy of certain industry groups that wish to prevent IRIS assessments from being completed and, ultimately, hope to reduce government regulation of chemicals. Viewed from another perspective, the push for "objective scientific analysis and transparency" by some industry groups and policymakers can also be seen as a way to prevent passage of reforms that would improve health by reducing exposures to toxic chemicals in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods.

The IRIS assessment process is not perfect. In fact, there are critical areas that still need improvement, including the need to ensure community input and guidance. Communities have an interest in IRIS as a critical component to reducing exposures to toxic chemicals in our communities, and community groups, public health organizations and environmental health scientists have voiced their concerns about IRIS meetings being dominated by industry representatives. (Read a letter from toxicologists and environmental scientists on the need for community input) But to date, the chemical industry's voice has been heard the loudest and clearest. Community and public health groups frequently lack the resources to support meaningful participation in the public processes of IRIS. The EPA must not allow industry to monopolize a process meant to gather input from all interested stakeholders.

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