This is the question that journalist Jim Daley raised recently in an article published in Scientific American. According to the article, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is substantially changing the program that evaluates the toxicity of chemicals by shifting staff and program emphasis from the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to duties related to implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Daley writes that “Former EPA officials contend that the shake-up takes chemical assessments out of the hands of career scientists, potentially to the detriment of public health.”
As evidence of this shift, Daley writes that that the agency has reduced the number of its ongoing chemical toxicity assessments from twenty to three.
The IRIS Program began in 1985 to support EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment by identifying and characterizing the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment. The IRIS program has become the most respected scientific program in the agency. Its health assessments are the backbone of EPA risk analysis work and is the preferred source of toxicity information used by EPA to determine public health risks. It is also an important source of toxicity information used by state and local health agencies, other federal agencies, and international health organizations.
The TSCA program on the other has a much narrower focus which is primarily on reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures, according to EPA’s website. Certain substances are not covered by TSCA including food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides. While the 2016 amendment to TSCA greatly improved this regulation, it did not address its narrow focus. This shift began with the leadership of Andrew Wheeler who took over for a beleaguered Scott Pruitt as administrator of EPA in July 2018.
One EPA official who declined to be identified was quoted in the Daley article saying that IRIS and TSCA are “very different” in their approaches to evaluating the public health risks posed by exposure to chemicals. “One could make the argument that this is political interference, in that high-level people are saying which methodology we should be using to assess the safety of a chemical. “And the policy’s pretty clear that they’re not supposed to do that.”
Bernard Goldstein, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who served as EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) from 1983 to 1985, summed it up this way in the Daley article, “I really see this as part of a restructuring of EPA in such a way that science will have very little to do with what EPA is basing its regulation on, and that we will end up with much weaker regulations in terms of protecting public health. “It’s troubling, in large part because it’s very consistent with an overall approach – a very astute approach – to take out the inconvenient facts.” Also cited in the same article was a comment by Thomas Burke from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a former EPA lead scientist adviser and Deputy Administrator of ORD from 2015 to 2017, “’any reduction’ of the number of IRIS chemical assessments ‘is a loss for public health and, unfortunately, puts populations who are exposed at risk.’”
Read the full article here.