EPA has stalled research on a program that carries out scientific studies which assess the toxicity risks of chemicals to human health.
What happened: A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the government’s main watchdog, has concluded that the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stalled research at the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. IRIS, a program that carries out scientific studies which assess the toxicity risks of chemicals to human health, has been unable to release any scientific assessments since June 2018. The reasons for this primarily boil down to multiple instances of interference by EPA leadership, including a partial reassignment of IRIS employees to another EPA program and stopping the work of 11 planned chemical assessments.
Why it matters: The dissemination of federal science is being suppressed, which is problematic since this scientific information could inform policies that protect people from exposures to chemicals that have been proven to be harmful to human health. IRIS assessments and associated risk values are considered a gold standard for toxicological studies and, for decades, have served as the backbone of important local, state, and federal policies that are designed to protect the health and safety of people from chemicals. The EPA’s mission statement, of providing “clean and safe air, water, and land for all Americans,” specifically prioritizes the safety of chemicals. By blocking, interfering, and halting the publication of IRIS assessments, the EPA is failing to live up to its mission statement and is endangering the health and safety of Americans across the nation.
Through the suppression of scientific studies, science is once again being targeted by the Trump administration. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent non-partisan agency that is often called the “congressional watchdog,” released a report showing how senior officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interfered with the ability of career staff at the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to release important scientific assessments that detail the health risks associated with exposures to certain chemicals. The interference was significant enough that IRIS has not been able to release a chemical assessment since June 2018. The GAO report does not specify who stalled the research, only that it was individuals at the EPA in leadership positions.
The GAO report documents five different ways that interference by EPA leadership has resulted in halting or delaying toxicology assessments from IRIS since June 2018. First, the EPA Administrator’s office told IRIS officials that, in order to release a study, they first needed to obtain a formal request for the study from the leadership at the program office. According to the GAO report, this policy directly delayed the release of the naphthalene assessment for over a month; EPA leadership refused to release the finalized naphthalene study because other EPA officials had not formally requested the assessment. When the naphthalene study was finally released, the public meeting to discuss the assessment “was postponed the day before that meeting with no explanation and no makeup date.”
The second way in which scientific information was suppressed was when the EPA Administrator’s office stalled the release of any assessment until a survey was completed. The survey directed IRIS programs and regional offices to reconfirm their need for 20 chemical assessments that were in development. The survey also required the sign-off of the Assistant Administrator for each IRIS program office in order to ensure that the responses “were consistent with the priorities of EPA program office leadership.” While the survey responses were being compiled, EPA leadership instructed the IRIS program not to release any IRIS assessments, or related documentation.
The third way in which IRIS’s scientific information was suppressed was through reducing scientific staff capacity at IRIS. During the administration of the survey, most of the IRIS staff were partially reassigned to work at the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), which was conducting chemical risk evaluations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). In September 2018, three months after the IRIS assessments were paused, 5 out of 30 IRIS staff were reassigned to the OPPT office to work on TSCA evaluations for 25 to 50 percent of their workload; one month later, this number increased to 28 of the 30 IRIS staff members.
The fourth way that the GAO concluded that EPA leadership suppressed the dissemination of IRIS’s research was through limiting the number of assessments that could be worked on. In October 2018, just prior to releasing the results of the internal survey, EPA leadership requested a prioritized list of chemical assessments limited to only three or four chemicals. According to IRIS staff, there was no information presented as to how to select the prioritized chemicals and no reason was given for why there was a limit. The GAO concluded that the “process was not transparent, leaving room for uncertainty.”
EPA leadership completed their deliberations in early December 2018 and, through an internal memo, announced that IRIS would only complete 11 assessments, instead of the 22 assessments that had been previously scheduled to be completed. The memo gave no reason for the reduction in assessments and no further guidance on whether more assessments could be requested.
The fifth and final way that scientific information at IRIS was suppressed was when the GAO reported that four chemical assessments “were in the later stages of development and had not been issued.” One of these IRIS assessments, on the health effects of formaldehyde, has been widely suspected to have been suppressed by EPA officials since 2017. The GAO report provides further evidence of this suppression by specifying that the formaldehyde assessment is “ready to be released for public comment and external peer review.” However, the EPA provided the GAO with no information on the status of the formaldehyde assessment, or on the other three chemical assessments (acrylonitrile, n-Butyl alcohol, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)).
Chemical toxicity assessments from IRIS are considered the gold standard for determining the risk of an environmental contaminant on human health. Local, state, federal, and even some international bodies rely on IRIS assessments in order to inform their environmental protection policies. Some of the most important environmental laws in the US, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, were informed by IRIS risk values. Unfortunately, the importance of the IRIS program has also made it a target for industry. Industry representatives have criticized the program and have pressured EPA officials, some of whom have industry connections, to shut down the program.
In the US, at every level of government, and in several countries around the world, the work of federal scientists at IRIS and their assessments are vitally important for the protection of people’s health and even their lives. By delaying the public release of critical chemical assessments, EPA leadership is failing its mission statement and may be endangering the lives of people across the world.