The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the 40 year-old organization charged with protecting public health and safety using sound, scientific risk assessments – has itself been put under the microscope by the governing body originally responsible for creating it, the U.S. Congress.
Presented with mounting criticism of the EPA, Congress took action last Saturday to improve the way in which the Agency makes public health determinations when assessing chemicals. The “Consolidated Appropriations Act” (H.R. 2055), which includes language that calls on the EPA to make specific improvements outlined by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), is an important step in repairing the waning scientific integrity of the Agency.
Future chemical assessments certainly stand to benefit from this bipartisan decision from Congress, but so do assessments going on right now. For example, ACC on Tuesday sent a letter to EPA calling for the Agency to follow the direction provided by Congress to withdraw its flawed dioxin reassessment from interagency review and take the necessary steps to implement the recommendations of the NAS and apply the best available science.
So, what are dioxins and why is fixing EPA’s reassessment so important?
Dioxins are a group of chemical byproducts that result from industrial and natural combustion processes, like forest fires, backyard burning and incineration. Today, studies indicate that U.S. dioxin emissions from man-made sources have dramatically declined and environmental levels of dioxin have plummeted – so much so that the largest sources of these chemicals in the U.S. now come from backyard trash burning and forest fires.
Despite the successful effort to reduce the amount of dioxin in the environment, EPA is proposing a reference dose for dioxin – the amount to which you and I can safely be exposed on a daily basis – that is “infinitesimally small” – less than one-trillionth of a gram per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight.
When compared to other governing bodies around the world, however, it turns out EPA’s proposed exposure level is highly problematic. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union, for example, have both set dioxin exposure thresholds well above the unnecessarily low level proposed by EPA. In fact, EPA’s proposed exposure limit is three times lower than that set by the WHO.
As Dale Moore, deputy executive director for public policy of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told BNA News, EPA’s draft reference dose implies that the dioxin levels resulting from wildfires, volcanoes, and other sources would be considered unsafe and would pose a problem for food.
Because the vast majority of our dioxin intake is through the food we consume, the current draft exposure standard, if finalized, would undermine the dietary regimen the U.S. government has recommended for years. Beef, chicken, fruits and vegetables could be deemed unsafe for consumption, especially by young children, who most depend on the essential vitamins and nutrients contained in these foods.
Already, over a dozen food industry associations have written the White House and other administration officials to show how the EPA’s current draft assessment of dioxin would have a “chilling” impact on the U.S. agricultural industry and its trade markets.
The Food Industry Dioxin Working Group wrote:
[quote]EPA is proposing a situation in which most U.S. agricultural products could arbitrarily be classified as unfit for consumption. The impact on agricultural production – conventional, organic, livestock/poultry/dairy, fruits, grains, and vegetables – may be significant, as will be the loss of trade markets, all without evidence of additional health protection.[/quote]
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. The changes called for by NAS and now required by Congress should improve the quality of science used by EPA and inject much needed transparency and objectivity into its risk assessment program, including ongoing evaluations of chemicals like dioxin.
Requiring EPA to report to Congress its progress on incorporating the NAS recommendations into the program and into individual assessments will lead to a better understanding of how decisions are made under IRIS and help keep the Agency on track.
Once the Agency is put on the right track, it will begin to make better – and more timely – public health decisions. And our country will be better served, too.