EPA IRIS program receives high marks from the National Academies

Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist and Ryan O’Connell is a High Meadows Fellow with the Health Program.

Last week the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published its review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, concluding that the program has made strong progress in implementing NAS’ earlier recommendations. As noted by the chair of the NAS committee that led the review, “The changes in the IRIS program over such a short period of time are impressive.”

As I’ve blogged about before, IRIS is a non-regulatory program that provides critical chemical reviews and scientific expertise that help ensure the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land where we live, work, and play are safe. Offices across EPA and elsewhere in the federal government rely on IRIS, as do states, local governments, and affected communities (see here and here).

“The changes in the IRIS program over such a short period of time are impressive.”

The new NAS report comes four years after its 2014 review, which noted the substantial progress made by IRIS in addressing recommendations from a more critical 2011 review of a draft IRIS assessment of formaldehyde. It is worth noting that half of the committee members involved in the new IRIS review served on the committee that authored the 2011 review.  

The new NAS report arrives just a few weeks after Congress passed its FY2018 spending bill that specifies IRIS is to remain fully funded and within EPA’s Office of Research and Development—a welcome decision by Congress given earlier concerning proposals to slash or eliminate IRIS altogether.

The committee’s review was informed by a two-day workshop that included several agency presentations, public comment, and a poster session. The committee also reviewed several recent IRIS work products. Materials from the meeting and the IRIS work products can be found here.

The NAS committee:

  • Did not recommend any major overhaul of the IRIS program or its approach to systematic review, noting that the program has made “substantial progress in incorporating systematic review methods into its process and assessments…facilitated by recruitment of the current IRIS program director, who has extensive experience in the development of the methods and their application to chemical risk assessment;”
  • found that IRIS has implemented, or is in the process of implementing, the majority of the recommendations made in the 2014 NAS report;
  • characterized their recommendations as “refinements,” which largely centered on clarifying terms and providing additional detail to certain processes used in the development of IRIS chemicals assessments;
  • recommended that EPA prioritize the completion of its guidance handbook for IRIS assessments, which is anticipated to be released in 2018. However, noted that, “In the absence of a final version of the handbook, EPA is describing its approach to for the reviews in its protocol documents, and this practice provides transparency into the assessment while the handbook is being completed;”
  • noted that IRIS’s placement within the science arm of the agency, specifically independent from the regulatory programs, aligns with best practices of systematic review; and
  • highlighted that the enthusiasm from IRIS leadership and other EPA staff toward the program is apparent and impressive.

The summary of the report concludes:

“Overall, the committee was impressed with the changes being instituted in the IRIS program since the 2014 report….The change in NCEA and IRIS leadership has led to substantive reforms, and there is strong evidence that systematic review methods are being developed and implemented and that there is a commitment to use systematic-review methods to conduct IRIS assessments. Although the committee offers some refinements and identifies a few possibilities for further development in Chapter 2, its overall conclusion is that EPA has been responsive and has made substantial progress in implementing National Academies recommendations.”

The achievements of the IRIS program over the past several years are commendable. EPA should be proud of the high marks IRIS has received from the National Academies, including for its commitment to continuous improvement and scientific leadership.

 

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