EPA's IRIS Program Still on GAO High Risk List

by Matt Shudtz

February 15, 2013

This week, GAO provided a helpful, unfortunately annual, reminder that EPA must do more to keep the IRIS program relevant for chemical risk management.  For the fifth year running, EPA’s programs for chemical risk management (IRIS among them) have been deemed in need of attention to avoid becoming so ineffective as to be considered a waste of agency resources.  GAO notes minimal progress by the IRIS program on completing assessments in the last two fiscal years (4 assessments each year).  GAO’s concern about the pace of new assessments echoes the concerns raised by CPR and other public health advocates at a Nov. 2012 stakeholder meeting convened by Dr. Kenneth Olden, the new head of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. 

IRIS program management recently delivered a status update to the National Research Council, explaining additional changes to the IRIS process that are aimed at reducing the time it takes to assess the long-term risks posed by toxic chemicals in our air, water, and soil.  Some changes are innovate staffing and management proposals, such as teams of specialists in certain risk assessment issues who will consult with other IRIS staff on particular chemical assessments.  I’m especially encouraged by the development of the Comment Tracker Database, which will allow IRIS staff to track common criticisms and respond to them in a consistent manner.  The database will also be a good tool for analyzing the utility of the various rounds of stakeholder review that are part of the IRIS process.  By my count, it’s now up to six rounds per assessment, since IRIS management have decided to add a public meeting at the literature review stage.  As I said at the November stakeholder meeting, based on our own observations of the similarity of issues raised in recursive rounds of stakeholder review, we expect assessments could be completed more quickly if stakeholder review were consolidated into a single comment period that ran concurrent with the expert peer review.  Should the database bear that out further, IRIS management ought to feel comfortable culling some of the extraneous review periods.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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