White House Added Political Review Process for Scientific Assessments of Chemicals

Published Oct 1, 2021

What happened: In early January 2021, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mandated a review process over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health assessments on the safety of chemicals. The White House would have a final say over science-based values related to a chemical’s toxicity, including the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessments.

Why it matters: This memo subjected the EPA’s IRIS assessments, rigorous scientific studies on a chemical’s toxicity, to a process that lacks transparency and opens up opportunities for delay and political interference. The insertion of a political process into how the EPA assesses the safety of chemicals could result in people across the country facing undue health burden from toxic chemicals, particularly people from underserved communities.

In January 2021, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memo directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator to place the chemical assessments, including those from the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, under OMB review. IRIS assessments identify and characterize the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment and represent the gold standard for chemical toxicity reviews at the federal, state, and local level, and even internationally.

Specifically, the review would occur under the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an office that has the power to conduct regulatory reviews of certain significant agency actions like proposed or final rules or certain guidance documents. Normally, purely scientific undertakings such as IRIS assessments are exempt from OIRA’s centralized review process.

The Trump administration’s actions would have revived a highly criticized process implemented by the George W. Bush administration where OIRA subjected EPA’s IRIS assessments to undue delays that were not transparent. Based on its study of OIRA under the Bush administration, the Majority Staff of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight in 2009 had concluded, “[T]he Subcommittee has ample documentation showing that OIRA’s staff scientists did far more than merely coordinate and facilitate science discussions across agencies. OIRA’s staff scientists directly challenged the science put forward by EPA IRIS staff in very detailed peer review-type comments.”

The memo, issued by then-OIRA administrator Paul Ray, sought to expand OIRA’s review not only to IRIS assessments but to other types of chemical assessments conducted by the EPA. The memo named another set of evaluations generally conducted within the same EPA research center as IRIS, known as provisional peer-reviewed toxicity values. The EPA develops these values for its Superfund office with the aim of providing risk estimates for cleanups.

By trying to mandate an OIRA review for EPA chemical assessments, the Trump administration added a process that would have allowed more political interference and large delays in the way federal scientists assess a chemical’s toxicity. This action impeded the science-based processes designed to keep communities across the country safe from toxic chemicals, and could have resulted in harm to communities, especially underserved communities.