Senate funding proposal to eliminate EPA’s IRIS program is a public health debacle

Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist with the Health Program.

Among other things, IRIS chemical reviews are used to inform clean-up decisions at Superfund and other contaminated sites, set standards to ensure clean drinking water, assess health risks from toxic air emissions, and evaluate health risks of chemicals in commerce. These are all legally mandated activities stipulated under different laws to ensure the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the lands where we work, live, and play are safe.

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Appropriations majority posted their version of the FY2018 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill online (see bill here and accompanying explanatory statement here; see the minority’s summary response here). The legislation lays out spending measures for a number of agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  In releasing the bill yesterday, the majority has bypassed the amendment and markup process.

Among other cuts, the bill eliminates the EPA Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program. At best a small fraction of its responsibilities – and only one-third of its funding – would be re-allocated to the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP).

If realized, this short-sighted move would be a debacle in terms of protecting public health from harmful chemical exposures.

[A short fact sheet on IRIS and implications of eliminating it is available here.]

Most well-known for its gold-standard chemical toxicity reviews, EPA’s IRIS Program is a non-regulatory program that provides critical information and scientific expertise to support decision-making across the agency’s programs and regional offices as well as to other federal agencies, states, localities, and tribes.

Among other things, IRIS chemical reviews are used to inform clean-up decisions at Superfund and other contaminated sites, set standards to ensure clean drinking water, assess health risks from toxic air emissions, and evaluate health risks of chemicals in commerce. These are all legally mandated activities stipulated under different laws to ensure the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the lands where we work, live, and play are safe.

Beyond supporting requirements under the law, IRIS Program experts are often called in to help regions, states, and tribes respond rapidly to emergency and other priority situations. IRIS staff are invaluable in these moments, when time is of the essence and experts are few and far between.

So, why would such a vital program be slated for elimination? Segments of the chemical industry and its allies in Congress (and now within EPA itself) have long complained about the quality of IRIS assessments, citing for support past reviews by GAO and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). But they conveniently ignore the more recent impartial reviews of the program that have given it high marks.

While NAS panels have been critical of IRIS in the past, the most recent NAS review from 2014 praised the program for substantial improvements made over a short period time. EPA’s Science Advisory Board echoed the same sentiments just this past summer, noting that no other federal entity performs IRIS functions. Critics also neglect to mention that much of the remaining critique, such as the program’s listing on the “high-risk” list maintained by GAO, points to insufficient resources and throughput, not quality issues.

And, don’t be fooled, moving IRIS staff out of the non-regulatory Office of Research and Development (ORD) into OCSPP would cost EPA scientific expertise that serves the entire agency, severely undermining the legal responsibilities Congress has given it.

Such a move would also sever the independence between scientific review and regulatory decisions informed by such reviews. This approach has been argued against in several NAS reviews of risk assessment. Indeed, per EPA’s website: “The placement of the IRIS Program in ORD is intentional. It ensures that IRIS can develop impartial toxicity information independent of its use by EPA’s program and regional offices to set national standards and clean up hazardous sites.”

In sum, EPA’s IRIS program plays a vital role in ensuring that our health is protected from harmful exposures. Instead of eliminating the IRIS Program, Congress should be dedicating additional resources in order to maintain its current workload and boost the program’s ability to help support chemical risk evaluations under the newly reformed TSCA.

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