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EPA chemical risk assessment program, though broken, is not beyond repair

In the latest of a series of concerns regarding EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on Monday that EPA continues to face “both long-standing and new challenges” in bringing this critical part of our chemical regulatory system to working order. In other words, there is still more work to be done.

The IRIS program produces chemical assessments that are relied upon by federal and state government agencies to establish regulatory standards. As President Obama has noted, it’s critical that the federal government develop or rely on the best science available – and that it evaluate the data fairly and accurately.

It’s evident from the GAO report that comprehensive improvements are still needed in the scientific process EPA employs to evaluate data and weight of evidence when determining the strengths and weaknesses of studies. In addition, the Agency needs to improve the review process to ensure that IRIS adequately incorporates changes in response to peer review and public comment.

The GAO report did acknowledge that EPA has already taken some steps to improve IRIS – thanks, in part, to outgoing EPA research chief Paul Anastas. As E&E News’ Jeremy Jacobs reported, Dr. Anastas “took several steps to bolster IRIS during his tenure. Most notably, he announced that the agency would implement recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences review of IRIS’s formaldehyde assessment.”

We were encouraged by Dr. Anastas’ pledge to improve IRIS and believe the bipartisan legislation recently approved by Congress will help EPA follow through on Dr. Anastas’ commitment and adopt the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) recommendations in a timely manner. As the GAO reports points out, EPA has yet to make known exactly how it will implement all of the recommendations. Congress, meanwhile, has set a clear timetable for EPA to fix IRIS and to provide a progress report to ensure all ongoing and future assessments benefit from changes to the program.

We need to get the IRIS process right so that we can all have confidence in the results of its chemical assessments. IRIS is an important program that must improve to complete assessments more efficiently and to provide answers to the public, public health professionals and industry in a far more timely way. ACC will continue to work with Congress, EPA and other stakeholders to seek further improvements to ensure IRIS delivers timely and credible science-based assessments.

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