EPA - A High Risk Agency that is Failing to do Its Job

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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 according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office. 

Scientific information on the toxicity of chemicals is needed to, among other things, support effective and informed decision making on whether EPA should establish controls to protect the public under such environmental laws as the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  However, notes the report, EPA’s inadequate progress in assessing toxic chemicals significantly limits the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

The report says actions are urgently needed to streamline and increase the transparency of the EPA’s registry of chemicals and calls for measures to enhance the agency’s ability to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry.

Newly appointed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised to take the report under consideration. “It is clear that we are not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace and the environment,” Jackson said in a prepared statement. “It is now time to revise and strengthen EPA’s chemicals management and risk assessment programs.”

The U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) recently reported that EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)-a database that contains EPA’s scientific position on the potential human health effects of exposure to more than 540 chemicals-is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because the agency has not been able to complete timely, credible assessments or decrease its backlog of 70 ongoing assessments.

Overall, EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than five years, and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.

Some of the IRIS assessments that have been in progress the longest cover key chemicals likely to cause cancer or other significant health effects. For example, EPA’s assessment of dioxin has been under way for 18 years. The Assistant Administrator for Research and Development recently told a congressional committee that the agency is years away from completing the dioxin assessment, and, as of December 2008, EPA’s database providing the status of individual IRIS assessments does not indicate either a starting date for developing a draft assessment or an estimated completion date for this key assessment.

Without greater attention to EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals, the nation lacks assurance that human health and the environment are adequately protected.

United States Government Accountability Office

Although dioxin is a known cancer-causing chemical to which humans are regularly exposed by eating such dietary staples as meats, fish, and dairy products, actions to protect the public will likely be delayed until the assessment is complete. Since EPA estimates that the assessment process for complex chemicals such as dioxin could take 6 to 8 years to complete, the public in the meantime will likely remain at risk. Other toxic chemicals with widespread human exposure whose assessments have been in progress for 10 or more years include formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene.

Most significantly, notes the report, EPA does not routinely assess the risks of the roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals that are already in use in the United States. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) generally places the burden of obtaining data on these chemicals on EPA, rather than requiring the companies that produce the chemicals to develop and submit such data. This burden is costly and time-consuming since TSCA requires that EPA demonstrate that certain health or environmental risks are likely before it can require companies to further test their chemicals.

TSCA provides slightly more robust authority in the case of new chemicals, about 700 of which are introduced into commerce annually. Chemical companies are required to provide EPA with certain information on new chemicals in “pre-manufacture notices,” and EPA may ban or limit their use if this information is inadequate. However, while 85 percent of pre-manufacture notices lack any health or safety test data, the agency does not often use its authority to obtain this information.

The European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) legislation generally places the burden on companies to provide data on the chemicals they produce and to address the risks those chemicals pose to human health and the environment.

In Canada, the federal government made international headlines last year when it added bisphenol A to the country’s toxic substances list. In December, 2006, a new Chemicals Management Plan was unveiled to regulate chemicals that are harmful to human health or the environment. A key element of the Plan is the collection of information on the properties and uses of the approximately 200 chemical substances identified as high priorities for action. This initiative, known as the “Challenge”, is announced in Notices published in the Canada Gazette.

Today 13 Notices relating to the release of draft screening assessments for the 18 substances in Batch 4 of the Challenge were published and draft screening assessments released on the Environment Canada web site. There is a 60-day public comment period associated with these publications.

Although numerous GAO reports have identified significant shortcomings with the IRIS assessment process and TSCA, and made recommendations to remedy them, EPA’s responses have not sufficiently improved the scientific information available to support critical decisions regarding whether and how to protect human health from toxic chemicals notes the report.

For example, GAO recommended that EPA streamline and increase the transparency of its IRIS assessment process. However, when EPA implemented a new assessment process in 2008, it did not incorporate the recommendations. In fact, the new process exacerbates the productivity and credibility concerns GAO identified, states the report.

In previous reports the GAO had recommended both statutory and regulatory changes to strengthen EPA’s authority to obtain additional information from the chemical industry, shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals, and enhance the public’s understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed.

However, notes the report, neither Congress nor EPA has implemented the most important recommendations aimed at providing EPA with the information needed to support its assessments of industrial chemicals. As a consequence, Americans are at high risk to exposure from chemicals that might otherwise be banned if the EPA was doing its job properly.

For More Information: US Government Accountability Office

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