July 14, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Chemical Industry to Star in the Role of Weeping Walrus at House Hearing on EPA's Assessment of Toxic Chemicals

Editor's Note: This morning, CPR President Rena Steinzor will testify at a House hearing regarding EPA's Integrated Risk Information System chemical database (full testimony). This post by NRDC Senior Attorney Daniel Rosenberg, cross-posted from Switchboard, explains the importance of IRIS and how the program is under attack.

Thursday morning, the House Science Committee’s Investigation and Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on EPA’s premier program for assessing the dangers of chemicals.   It is called the IRIS program, (which stands for Integrated Risk Information System).  The IRIS program looks at the science available on the potential dangers of a chemical and determines what hazard that chemical may pose – such as causing cancer, birth defects, diseases, etc., and what level of exposure, if any, is likely to be without an appreciable risk of harm.  The IRIS program doesn’t issue regulations; it is focused on assessment of chemical hazards.  But other parts of EPA, such as the air program and the water program, rely upon the IRIS assessments in setting their health standards to protect people from toxic chemicals.  Other states and countries also rely upon the IRIS assessments. 

Because of the importance of IRIS assessments for determining what types of harm a chemical might cause, and what levels of exposure may or may not be safe, the assessments conducted by IRIS are constantly scrutinized, challenged, and attacked by the chemical industry.  New or updated assessments by the IRIS program that suggest greater harm from a chemical than was previously recognized are particularly anathema to the chemical industry, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent such determinations from being finalized.  Industry’s campaign has been so successful, that in 2009 the GAO added the IRIS program to its (short) list of federal programs being at “high risk” of failure, due to its completing so few assessments that it would become irrelevant.  (The GAO decision was based in part on the problems with the IRIS program, and in part with the problems with the TSCA program). The GAO will testify at Thursday’s hearing.

The most recent example of this on-going battle is formaldehyde, which will be the main subject of Thursday’s hearing.  The chemical industry has been fighting for more than a decade to weaken and delay EPA’s updated assessment of formaldehyde and in particular to counter the growing evidence that formaldehyde not only causes cancer of the nose and throat (which has been well-established for some time) but also can cause myeloid leukemia.  An important part of the evidence for the link between formaldehyde and leukemia is two large studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde.  EPA relied upon these studies in combination with other supportive scientific information as part of its draft assessment which concluded that formaldehyde can cause myeloid leukemia.

To prevent EPA from finalizing its assessment, and in the hope of discrediting the science showing harm, major manufacturers of formaldehyde formed The Formaldehyde Council, which marshaled its forces to block EPA from moving forward.  The Formaldehyde Council worked with Louisiana Senator David Vitter to block the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Paul Anastas, to run EPA’s Office of Research and Development (which is where the IRIS program is located).  Senator Vitter held the nomination hostage until EPA agreed to send its assessment to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for review – ensuring a delay of at least two years before EPA could update its assessment of formaldehyde.  EPA ultimately agreed to refer the assessment to the NAS and Anastas was subsequently confirmed by the Senate.  Dr. Anastas will testify at Thursday’s hearing.

In April, the NAS issued its report.  Its most important element did not live up to industry’s hopes. The Academies supported EPA’s determination to include leukemia in its calculation of cancer risks. But, in a case of the wrapping being better than what is inside the box, the NRC used the opportunity to take EPA to task for the way the draft assessment presented its information and communicated the science.  The NAS leveled heavy criticism for the report being too long (more than 1,000 pages), unclear, repetitive, and for EPA failing to fully “explain their work” – state clearly why certain studies were relied upon for reaching decisions.  Jonathan Samet, the Chair of the NAS panel will testify at Thursday’s hearing.

These are criticisms that the NAS had made in previous chemical reviews, and clearly the reviewers were venting some frustration at feeling that their concerns were being inadequately addressed by EPA.  Between the time the draft assessment was sent to the NAS for review (as a condition of Paul Anastas getting confirmed) and the time the NAS report was released, the head of the IRIS program had been replaced, and changes were already underway at the program.  And EPA has formally announced a set of changes it will be making to its assessments to address the NAS’s specific recommendations.

But that’s not good enough for the chemical industry, which seized upon the NAS report as a golden opportunity to slam the IRIS program, EPA more generally, and even other federal science agencies, for lacking scientific credibility or integrity, and to accuse government scientists of “politicizing” the scientific process.  The chemical industry has launched a campaign, based upon the procedural criticisms of the NAS panel to call for a set of extreme measures that are not supported by the NAS, but would serve two industry purposes: further delay the issuance of EPA’s assessments, including the formaldehyde draft; and actually “politicize” the assessment process, with a thumb on the scale in favor of the chemical industry and other polluters, by shifting oversight of the IRIS program from EPA to the White House.  Rena Steinzor of The Center for Progressive Reform penned an excellent letter to the OMB, in response to the chemical industry’s  letter calling for takeover of the IRIS program.  She will be testifying at Thursday’s hearing.

The leader of this effort has been Cal Dooley, head of the chemical industry’s trade association – the American Chemistry Council (ACC, formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) – which represents all of the major chemical companies you have heard of – DuPont, Dow, BASF, Procter and Gamble – as well as those you probably haven’t (Lubrizol, LyondellBasell).  I last wrote about Cal Dooley back in December when he held a press conference to affirm the chemical industry’s commitment to reforming our chemical management system to protect people from unsafe chemicals – on the same day the chemical industry killed an amendment in the Senate to ban the use of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups.  That was vintage Cal.

On Thursday we’ll likely get more of the same from the chemical industry witnesses – both from Cal Dooley and scientist-for-hire (by the chemical industry) Gail Charnley.   They won’t necessarily be straight-forward in their hostility to the agency and its mission.  They’ll come “more in sorrow than in anger” under the guise of trying to improve the system for assessing chemicals to ensure greater protection of the public, without mentioning their never-ending campaign to undermine and discredit the agency, and the IRIS program in particular.  They’ll likely adopt a posture similar to that taken by the Walrus in Alice in Wonderland, who weeps in pity for the oysters he is eating on the beach.

And they’ll likely be enabled by the majority on the Committee, who share industry’s view that this is a golden opportunity to exaggerate and misrepresent the NAS criticisms of EPA, and use it as a weapon to further constrain the agency’s ability to take action to protect the public.

I admire the industry’s opportunism – it’s just too bad they don’t devote more of those energies to developing safer chemicals and getting the carcinogens like formaldehyde and hormone disrupters like BPA off the market.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

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Daniel Rosenberg, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council.