Anti-Regulatory Forces Target Agency Science to Undermine Health and Safety Standards


As committees of the 113th Congress begin to implement their agendas, it is increasingly apparent that environmental and health standards, and the science serving as the basis for these protections, will remain a favorite target of anti-regulatory legislators. Last session's industry-supported proposals to change scientific assessment programs would undermine environmental, health, and safety standards, yet they are likely to reappear. Meanwhile, new investigations underscore that these measures ignore the real impediments to improving the credibility and usefulness of agency science and risk assessments.

House Committees Continue to Question Environmental Science

On Feb. 14, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing, "The State of Environment: Evaluating Progress and Priorities," examining the state of environmental quality and the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The theme set by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), chair of the subcommittee, was that environmental quality has improved, and current accounts of environmental harms are "doomsday predictions" and "hobgoblins." Harris claimed that "future progress will not likely be so easily identified, will be extremely costly, and benefits may be unquantifiable." Citing science demonstrating the significant achievements of environmental protections, Republican members of the committee and witnesses they invited to testify at the hearing contended that it may be too costly to address residual risks to the environment.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, disputed these arguments and testified that scientific advancements reveal there is even more to do to improve public health and environmental protection. Dr. Goldstein explained that advances in toxicology, epidemiology, and other sciences have allowed us to identify new, unforeseen hazards and complex challenges to human and environmental health. Addressing these new challenges requires the use of scientific assessments and tools that help identify and understand changing and emerging risks.

Unfortunately, businesses opposed to regulation are pushing some so-called "improvements" to EPA risk assessments that could undermine the science EPA relies on to protect the public. Last year, the House Science and Energy and Commerce Committees commonly used their authority to criticize EPA's scientific assessment programs, challenge the scientific basis for agency action, and urge delay.

The Real Problems Facing Agency Science and Risk Assessments

While it is often true that new studies and analyses can be incorporated into EPA assessments and that, in many cases, including more information could improve the assessments, the reforms proposed by regulatory opponents and supported by industry lobbyists would only exacerbate existing weaknesses. The integrity and usefulness of agency science and risk assessments are routinely impaired by delay, conflicts of interest, and the constant second guessing of agency decisions based on studies backed by regulated industries.

The value of EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program has been significantly undercut by excessive delays and industry influence. The IRIS program conducts assessments of chemical hazards and is a critical source of information to the public and to decision makers about the risks posed by toxic chemicals. In fact, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently recognized that "[EPA's] ability to effectively implement its mission of protecting public health and the environment is critically dependent on credible and timely assessments of the risks posed by chemicals." Unfortunately, GAO also reported that IRIS is at risk of becoming ineffective because the program has failed to keep pace and complete assessments of the most important chemicals of concern. GAO first reported concerns with the effectiveness of the IRIS program in 2008 and, although EPA continues to improve transparency and timeliness, many important chemical assessments remained bottlenecked in the lengthy process. An IRIS assessment involves a comprehensive literature review, multiple opportunities for public comment, rigorous peer review of draft background documents, and final review by independent experts and other agency staff. The entire process takes at least two years (and often longer).

EPA is working to improve IRIS by holding stakeholder meetings to gather outside views on the best reforms, but the "fixes" proposed by the chemical industry could undermine the program and delay or dilute its assessments. Industry groups and their allies in Congress consistently blocked EPA's IRIS assessments for formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium, known carcinogens. A common industry argument is that agency scientific assessments need more stakeholder input and peer review, but there are already numerous rounds of stakeholder review. Environmental groups and scientists contend that allowing additional opportunities for input are unnecessary and give the affected industry an advantage in influencing the outcome of the assessment. Stakeholder reviews should be consolidated to complete assessments more quickly, they argue, instead of increasing delay and giving industry yet another bite at the apple.

Industry and environmental groups also disagree on proposed reforms to EPA's Science Advisory Board, a committee of experts that advises the agency on the scientific aspects of environmental issues, including IRIS assessments. Legislation introduced in 2012 by majority members of the House Science Committee garnered support from the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups. The EPA Science Advisory Board [SAB] Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 6564, claims to enhance transparency and reduce conflicts of interest, but scientists at environmental organizations warn that the bill is another attack on government science and scientists who receive government research funding. This bill and other proposed changes to agency science programs are likely to reappear this session given that the House Science Committee plans to continue investigations of EPA science and risk assessments. The Senate has shown significantly less interest in these issues.

Recent reports of egregious examples of industry interference with environmental assessments illustrate the need shield science from industry influence. The Center for Public Integrity this month released a report revealing alarming industry ties to EPA's IRIS and peer review panels. More than two years ago, EPA scientists concluded, as other scientific bodies have, that hexavalent chromium, a compound found in drinking water that can also be inhaled, may cause cancer. The chemical industry immediately tried to block the assessment and urged the agency to withhold its findings until new studies paid for by big chemical companies were completed.

In agreeing to the delay, EPA relied on an ostensibly unbiased panel of scientists tasked with reviewing the chromium findings. The Center for Public Integrity's investigation revealed that a number of the EPA panelists urging delay had worked on behalf of PG&E, the company accused of contaminating drinking water with chromium in the film Erin Brockovich. These panelists conducted research for PG&E and served as defense experts in the lawsuit against the company. Another panelist who urged EPA to wait on new American Chemistry Council studies served as a consultant on those very studies.

The American Chemistry Council, whose members include Dow and ExxonMobil, also lobbies heavily on EPA chemical assessments. At the same time, the trade association funds research to inform assessments in which it has a stake, and a staggering number of EPA review panelists have authored industry-backed research.

The chemical industry also uses the peer review panel process to delay and undermine assessments. By submitting endless comments refuting EPA's findings and questioning the agency's methods, industry can stall the assessments and submit its own studies. Industry lobbyists also employ the help of other government agencies to thwart potentially unfavorable chemical assessments.

There are real impediments to achieving scientific integrity. Sound, timely scientific assessments that identify risk are crucial to helping agencies fulfill their missions and protect the public. However, legislative reforms that further delay or weaken agency assessments will not improve these programs. Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson may institute new rules to allow more public input on panelists for peer review committees, and the director of EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment continues to seek recommendations for improvements. To significantly enhance the quality and value of IRIS, assessments must be completed in a timelier fashion, and EPA must protect its research and scientific findings from industry's influence and biased agenda.

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