Effect Measure

If you aren’t in the business of figuring out if a chemical is a health hazard you might never have heard of the EPA’s IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) database but suffice it to say it is a wealth of valuable information on the topic. Considered authoritative by many states and countries, its judgements have become the basis for official standards. It’s been around since the start of Reagan’s second term (1985) so there is no claim it is some kind of fringe environmentalist fantasy. It’s not the Last Word but it’s a loud voice and taken seriously by anyone tasked with protecting the public from toxic hazards.

Just the kind of thing we expect the Bush administration to monkey around with. We are not disappointed:

Without obtaining public input, on April 10, EPA announced its revisions to the IRIS process, which became effective immediately. The modifications were designed to make IRIS more transparent, objective, and streamlined, the agency wrote.


But critics say that EPA inserted formal policies to allow other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. Department of Energy, to be involved in each assessment at almost every step. For example, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees the federal regulatory process, is provided with seven opportunities, up from two, to have its say on IRIS assessments.

“We found that the IRIS database is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because EPA has not been able to routinely complete timely credible assessments or decrease its backlog of 70 ongoing assessments,” said John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment at [the General Accountability Office], in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. GAO also noted that the upgraded OMB review will bog down IRIS assessments and hinder EPA’s independence, Stephenson said. OMB, without giving any reasons, once ordered EPA to terminate five IRIS assessments, he added.

EPA already has slowed down the pace of its IRIS assessments, EPA staffers note. The agency sent 32 draft assessments for external review during the past 2 years but finalized only 4 of them, according to GAO. Now it takes an average of 7 years to conduct an IRIS assessment, but EPA can complete a virtually identical internal review, known as the Provisional Peer Reviewed Toxicity Values, in only 1 year, added a former EPA scientist, who spoke to ES&T on condition of anonymity.

“The revised process defines comments from federal agencies as ‘deliberative’, which means they will not become part of the public record and will be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests,” says Kyla Bennett, director of the New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group. (Environmental Science & Technology)

One of the witnesses at the hearing is Dr. Lynn Goldman, formerly assistant administrator at EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances (and now an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins). She notes that in 2004 a 7 year review of formaldehyde was completed (declared a known human carcinogen in 2006 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO agency). But the findings are still not in IRIS because the Bush EPA gave the formaldehyde industry time to do its own assessment and then incorporated the industry version into EPA’s hazardous air pollutant rule on particle board. It is formaldehyde from particle board that is at issue in the debacle over the 120,000 trailers FEMA used to house Katrina victims (see here, here and here). The EPA’s own (independent) Science Advisory Board was not consulted.

The effort to “streamline” IRIS is the brainchild of Bush lapdog George Gray, a well known friend of industry who came to EPA from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which, under his tenure and the tenure of his predecessor (both at Harvard and at EPA) was funded by some of the largest multinational corporations in the world. Under Gray they issued reports that “found” that driving while talking on a cell phone was not dangerous (funded by the cell phone folks) and there was no threat of mad cow disease in the US (funded by the meat industry). The Center was notorious and a laughingstock in public health circles. As a result Harvard put pressure on it to clean up its act after Gray left for the Bush EPA, although now it doesn’t list its donors on the website. We know some of the principal scientist there now, and we think they are pretty good and intellectually honest. I don’t think we can say the same for George Gray.

There are 241 days left of the Bush administration nightmare, but some of the damage will last well into the next decade. It’s a good thing the Great Library at Alexandria is already destroyed. That means the Bush administration won’t have to waste any “smart” bombs doing it.


  1. #1 bc
    May 27, 2008

    EPA isn’t the only one. See what USDA is doing too:

  2. #2 Douglas
    June 1, 2008

    I’m beginning to understand “total information awareness” a little better now: (Attempted) Total control of information that the public should be aware of;
    It’s a good thing TIA didn’t make it to cabinet level.

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