Posted by: Steven M. Taber | January 22, 2009

GAO Adds EPA’s Processes For Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals to Its 2009 “High-Risk” List

The U.S. Government Accountability Office today added EPA’s processes for assessing and controlling toxic chemicals to its biennial update of its list of federal programs, policies, and operations that are at “high risk’ for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or in need of broad-based transformation.  See, High Risk Series:  An Update, issued January 22, 2009.

The GAO found that the EPA lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment—as well as on tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States.  Since EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment depends on credible and timely assessments of the risks posed by toxic chemicals, this lack of information is critical.

The GAO concluded that:

[EPA's] Integrated Risk Information System, which contains assessments of more than 500 toxic chemicals, is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because EPA has been unable to keep its existing assessments current or to complete assessments of important chemicals of concern.  Overall, EPA has finished only nine assessments in the past three years; at the end of 2007, most of the 70 ongoing assessments had been underway for more than five years.  EPA urgently needs to streamline and increase the transparency of this assessment process

The GAO did not fault the EPA for the shortcomings.  GAO suggested that the EPA receive additional authority that that currently provided in TSCA to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry and to shift more of the burden to chemical companies to demonstrate the safety of their products.

More importantly, the GAO pointed to two new OMB-required reviews of IRIS assessments by the OMB and other federal agencies as being particularly problematic to IRIS.  GAO found that the OMB-required reviews, which are not publicly available, are problematic because they involve other federal agencies in EPA’s IRIS assessment process in a manner that limits the credibility of IRIS assessments and hinders EPA’s ability to manage them. Specifically, some of the agencies providing input into the assessments are those that may be affected by the assessments should they lead to regulatory or other actions that would place additional requirements on the agencies. Importantly, these reviews lack transparency—a particular credibility concern in light of the involvement of agencies that may be affected by the outcome.

The GAO concluded its section on IRIS with these ominous words:  “Without greater attention to EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals, the nation lacks assurance that human health and the environment are adequately protected.”

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