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Democrats Urge EPA to Accelerate Pace of IRIS Assessments

Jul 16, 2014
Press Release

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Subcommittee on Environment held a joint subcommittee hearing to review the findings of a National Academies’ May 2014 report on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). The IRIS program develops assessments for potential human health effects that may result from chemical exposures. The report praised the “substantial improvements” made by EPA since the previous Academies report in 2011 provided specific guidelines to improve the quality of assessments. However, Democratic Members stressed the need for timely completion of IRIS assessments as well as the need for community groups and public health organizations to have a voice in the process.

Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) of the Subcommittee on Environment expressed concern regarding the pace at which EPA is completing IRIS assessments. “Frankly the combination of the 2011 report and the new leadership at the National Center for Environmental Assessment, which has focused on building a better relationship with industry, has had the effect of crippling IRIS rather than putting the EPA on a path to streamlined production of IRIS entries. In fact, unless changes are implemented, it may very well cripple the program as much as when OMB was involved with repeated ‘peer reviews.’ So I am very interested to hear from Dr. Olden about what he intends to do to get production of IRIS assessments moving.”

In a statement for the record Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the full committee said, “Unfortunately, the value of IRIS is too often obscured by the criticisms of those who stand to gain by interfering with EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment…EPA must continue to expand opportunities for stakeholder input and discussion. The chemical industry is not the only stakeholder in public health assessments. Community groups and public health organizations do not always have the same resources to support meaningful participation in the public processes of IRIS. The EPA must not permit a privileged few to monopolize a process meant to foster open discussion.”

Professor Rena Steinzor, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, and the President of the Center for Progressive Reform, commented on this imbalance in her testimony. “Once EPA starts an IRIS assessment, there must be an end in sight. An assessment must be declared finished and its results posted on the web. When significant new science is produced suggesting that the numbers must be lowered or raised, EPA can reexamine the profile. Too often, though, regulated industries manage to push EPA on a treadmill where it never escapes the wait for one study or another to be completed before moving forward with a draft assessment. The trouble is, science is always evolving. EPA cannot wait on all the science to resolve itself and the “truth” to be announced—that simply is not the nature of the scientific enterprise. Instead, EPA must adopt clear rules that explain why agency experts have moved to the next stage in the assessment process.”

She continued, “Stopping rules are an important way to speed up the IRIS process, but they are insufficient to address the larger problem of too much industry influence over the IRIS program. In recent years, the IRIS program has hosted numerous stakeholder engagement events, some tied to specific assessments, others related to broader science issues or even general concerns about the IRIS program as a whole…Take, for example, last month’s meeting on the inorganic arsenic and hexavalent chromium assessments. A group of public interest-oriented [scientists] reviewed the agenda for the meeting and found that industry-sponsored speakers filled 37 of the 46 speaking slots during the arsenic meeting and 40 of the 41 slots during the chromium meeting. Regular participants in IRIS public forums and related events will confirm a similar imbalance in the public input at those events – with heavy reliance on industry and comparatively less input from environmentalists, community groups, and others without a financial interest in IRIS.”

Also testifying before the Subcommittees were Dr. David Dorman, representing the Committee to Review EPA’s IRIS Process at the National Research Council; Dr. Kenneth Olden, Director of the National Center for Environmental Assessment at EPA; and Mr. Michael Walls, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs at the American Chemical Society.

113th Congress