The Great Divide Over Risk Assessment

By David Michaels

“Risk assessment data can be like a captured spy: if you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.”
– William Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator,

Risk assessment, explicit and implicit, is the motor that drives regulation. It can be a valuable tool for assisting regulatory agencies in selecting priorities and setting standards. It is also a means through which opponents of regulation can manufacture uncertainty and impede implementation of appropriate public health and environmental protection programs.

The failed White House proposal to restructure federal risk assessment activities (see Bob Shull’s post about the National Academy of Sciences’ SCATHING review of the proposal) is a terrific lens to expose how various powerful players have promoted their version of risk assessment to slow down or stop regulation.


Let’s begin with the NAS panel’s unanimous conclusions about how bad, and how dangerous, implementation of the proposal would be:

Overall, the committee concludes that the potential for negative impacts on the practice of risk assessment in the federal government…would be very high if the currently proposed bulletin were implemented.

and

On the basis of its review, the committee concludes that the OMB bulletin is fundamentally flawed and recommends that it be withdrawn.

The NAS panel agreed with the Center for Progressive Reform, OMB Watch, Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other public interest groups that implementation of proposal would damage the ability of regulatory agencies to respond to actual risks to the public’s health.

In contrast, the support of the proposal by some of the powerful corporate trade associations make it abundantly clear that the objectives of these groups is not better, more scientifically-based regulation – they want less regulation, and saw the flawed White House proposal as way to get there.

National Association of Manufacturers:

  • OMB draft is “a good beginning with many useful ideas and features” (Page 5)
  • “Issuance of the Risk Assessment Bulletin should help to enhance the quality of agency activities, including rulemaking, and further the goals of the Information Quality Act.” (Page 10)


National Federation of Independent Businesses:

  • NFIB is “largely satisfied” with the proposal (Page 3)
  • “What OMB has decided to do here will tremendously benefit the public generally, and small businesses specifically. The proper assessment and comparison of risk will help us all create public policies that are both sound and able to be prioritized, while weighing them in the face of other public policies that are currently being implemented.” (Page 7)

US Chamber of Commerce:

  • “…the U.S. Chamber welcomes and applauds this undertaking by OMB to improve the risk assessments performed by federal government agencies and especially in requiring a reliable characterization of the uncertainties that impact the quality and useful information content of the assessments.” (Page 1-2)
  • “With regard to evaluating whether a potential hazard exists and its extent of possible risk to human health, safety, or the environment, OMB has compiled and documented a persuasive body of evidence in its Bulletin…” (Page 3)
  • “…the US Chamber of Commerce applauds OMB for undertaking its Proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin at this time.” (page 3)

The next time we hear one of these trade associations call for “sound science” (in opposition to some new public health protection proposal), we should remember their support of this destructive risk assessment proposal to be reminded what they really mean.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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