The growing crisis over PFCs: A clear example of the need for EPA’s IRIS Program

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

As I blogged about earlier, the FY2018 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies bill posted in November by the Senate Appropriations committee majority would eliminate EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. Located within the research arm of EPA, this non-regulatory program produces top-tier chemical hazard assessments used not only by multiple regulatory offices within EPA, but also by other federal agencies, regions, and states. IRIS chemical assessments, and the scientists that develop them, are relied on to support a broad range of core environmental decisions from setting clean-up levels at contaminated sites to evaluating health risks of chemicals in commerce and setting standards to ensure clean air and drinking water.

The widespread contamination of drinking water with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)—chemicals that stick around in the environment for years and years—is a timely example of just how critical scientists within IRIS and related EPA research programs are. Across the country, governments are grappling with how to manage contamination from well-known toxic PFCs, like PFOA and PFOS, while simultaneously trying to understand potential health risks from a plethora of other less well-studied PFCs like GenX.

So what’s the job of EPA IRIS in a situation like this?

Along with other EPA scientists, IRIS staff are critical to developing robust assessments of PFC hazards; to coordinate with researchers at the National Toxicology Program and the National Center for Computational Toxicology on what additional data are needed and how best to get them; and importantly, to provide support to resource- and expertise-strapped state and local governments that desperately need scientific advice.

When persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, some known to cause cancer, are showing up everywhere from polar bears in the Artic to drinking water in places including North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia and New York, our best scientists with the most relevant experience need to be deployed.  This is no time to be talking of eliminating or cutting back IRIS—a program specifically designed to provide scientific support in critical public health situations. It’s worth noting that the IRIS program received high marks from National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2014 and a new NAS review is currently underway. If some have questions about the IRIS program and its value to the nation, why not wait until this review by the nation’s premier scientific body is completed before considering whether to retain, eliminate or make changes to the IRIS program?

What’s really going on here is that certain segments of industry and their allies in Congress and political appointees at EPA would rather IRIS not exist. They would rather shut it down in order to shut out strong independent science, leaving stranded the state and local governments doing their best to manage complicated public health situations like the one unfolding with PFCs.

Good government, scientific integrity and public health protection demand that EPA research programs like IRIS are maintained and strengthened, not dismantled by those with little interest in any of these objectives.


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