The Big Squeeze: Dangers for public health lurk in recent EPA re-org efforts

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

Over the past several months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made or proposed a number of distressing shifts in offices or staff that support critical chemicals-related activities and scientific research. The programs affected include the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, the Safer Choice program, and the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER). Not coincidentally, each of these programs has been in the crosshairs of certain segments of industry and its allies in Congress and the Administration.

This blog post briefly reviews the proposed or implemented shifts and their implications.  

EPA’s IRIS program

EPA’s IRIS program sits in the science arm of the agency, the Office of Research and Development (ORD). IRIS is a non-regulatory program that provides critical information and expertise to support a variety of public health protection needs inside and outside the agency—from establishing clean-up standards at contaminated sites to ensuring clean drinking water. Its assessments of chemicals are considered the gold standard, and the last published review of IRIS by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2014 gave the program resounding praise. (Another NAS review of the IRIS program is currently under way, see here).

As I blogged earlier, the Senate Committee on Appropriations majority’s FY 2018 EPA funding bill called for eliminating IRIS and re-assigning a number of its staff to support TSCA implementation. An internal EPA memo for the President’s FY 2018 budget eliminated all funding for the IRIS program (see p. 21 here), although the cut didn’t make the President’s final budget proposal.

IRIS has long been under attack by the chemical industry and its allies (see for example, this piece by the conservative think tank, Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and recent commentary from the American Chemistry Council).

Eliminating the IRIS program, or cutting its resrouces, would be devastating for offices across EPA, as well as for other federal agencies, states, regions, and tribes, all of whom rely on IRIS chemical assessments and expertise to help them protect public health. Several state attorneys general and communities affected by toxics like perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have strongly opposed eliminating IRIS or cutting its resources. IRIS’ fate remains uncertain.

There are signs EPA may seek to gut IRIS by shifting its limited staff resources out of the program and into regulatory offices.

EPA’s Safer Choice Program

Safer Choice is a voluntary EPA program that recognizes products that use safer chemistry. Products that meet the program’s safer ingredient and disclosure requirements earn the right to carry the Safer Choice label, helping shoppers easily identify products that have put a premium on safer ingredients.

This program has received significant praise not only from the NGO community (see for example, here, here, and here), but also from industry. In fact, over 180 companies ranging from major chemical manufacturers like BASF and Dow, to product manufacturers like P&G, Seventh Generation, RB and Levi Strauss, to retailers like Walmart and Target, sent a letter of support for the program to Administrator Pruitt early on in the Trump Administration.

But certain segments of the chemical industry have sought to make Safer Choice go away (see again the CEI piece), and they may just get their way. President Trump’s FY 2018 (see p. 64 here) and FY 2019 (see p. 79 here) budgets propose to zero out EPA’s pollution prevention program, which funds Safer Choice. The Senate majority appropriations bill I mentioned above does as well (see p. 62 here).

Not content with waiting for a new budget, Scott Pruitt’s EPA took its own big swipe at Safer Choice just over a week ago, shifting five of its 14 staff to support TSCA implementation.

National Center for Environmental Research (NCER)

Last week, EPA announced it will consolidate three offices within ORD, including the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER).

NCER manages the vast majority of extramural research funding provided by EPA, mainly through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. We recently blogged about the STAR program in the context of Scott Pruitt’s directive barring scientists currently receiving EPA grants from serving on EPA advisory committees.

The STAR program received a glowing review from NAS just last year. NAS noted that the program “fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing, which have produced research that has supported interventions that may reduce the cost of regulations, protect public health, and save lives.” STAR grants have been awarded to investigators across the country, and have led to the publication of 6,614 scientific articles between 2001 and 2012 (p. 38 of NAS report). Among the many public health benefits resulting from STAR-funded research are the improvement of air quality standards and the imposition of limits on arsenic in infant rice cereal.

Despite these achievements, funding for the STAR grant program has been in steady decline. In the early 2000s, the STAR program was funded annually at $138 million, but by 2017 funding had fallen to $28 million.

What does the consolidation involving NCER mean for the STAR program? While that is not yet clear, it certainly doesn’t bode well given everything we’ve seen so far, including this Administration’s proposal to slash ORD’s budget by over 48% in FY 2019.

Like the Safer Choice program, this Administration has painted a bullseye on the STAR program: President Trump’s FY 2018 (see p. 68 here) and FY 2019 (see p. 83 here) budgets propose to zero out the program. This is all in keeping with this Administration’s broader gutting of funding support for public health and environmental research and the next generation of health and environmental researchers.

Those who care about protecting public health need to closely watch and push back against these reorganizations, reassignments, and budget cuts, which collectively pose dire threats to our health and that of our environment.

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