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Congress Should Target Unaccountable EPA Programs

The newly elected congressional majority should be ready and willing to help implement President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to tackle onerous regulations. But what about so called “non-regulatory programs” that have significant public policy and marketplace impacts?

Congress can address problems associated with such programs by defunding them or by bringing them under the authority of existing environmental laws.

Top on the list should be the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System, also known as IRIS. IRIS gains its authority simply as a line item inside EPA’s Office of Research and Development. As a research program, IRIS operates outside the regulatory process and its accountability systems.

According to EPA’s website, IRIS issues “assessments” of chemicals that focus on “identifying and characterizing the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment.” Numerous regulatory programs inside EPA, from drinking water to hazardous waste clean-up programs, use IRIS assessments as a basis for regulation. Yet IRIS assessments are regularly criticized as unscientific and poorly designed.

For nearly a decade, congressional oversight committees, the Government Accountability Office, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have all urged EPA to reform the IRIS process to address scientific and procedural problems. In paricular, a 2011 NAS review of the IRIS assessment for Formaldehyde detailed many problems associated with IRIS assessments and needed reform. The NAS report explained:

Overall, the committee noted some recurring methodologic problems in the draft IRIS assessment of formaldehyde. Many of the problems are similar to those which have been reported over the last decade by other NRC committees tasked with reviewing EPA’s IRIS assessments for other chemicals. Problems with clarity and transparency of the methods appear to be a repeating theme over the years, even though the documents appear to have grown considerably in length. In the roughly 1,000-page draft reviewed by the present committee, little beyond a brief introductory chapter could be found on the methods for conducting the assessment. Numerous EPA guidelines are cited, but their role in the preparation of the assessment is not clear. In general, the committee found that the draft was not prepared in a consistent fashion; it lacks clear links to an underlying conceptual framework; and it does not contain sufficient documentation on methods and criteria for identifying evidence from epidemiologic and experimental studies, for critically evaluating individual studies, for assessing the weight of evidence, and for selecting studies for derivation of the RfCs and unit risk estimates.

Congress could address problems with IRIS by moving its functions and funding into the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) program at EPA. This action should garner broad support given that the recent TSCA reform law gained overwhelming bipartisan approval in Congress and was signed by President Obama last spring.

TSCA’s requirements for reliance on “best available, peer reviewed science” as well as weight of the evidence consideration could make IRIS evaluations more meaningful.  In addition, as part of a formal regulatory program, chemical assessments would hopefully be more transparent.

Like IRIS, EPA’s Safer Choice program (formerly called “Design for the Environment”) is a non-regulatory program that has public policy and marketplace impacts. The program calls on companies to eliminate certain chemicals from their products voluntarily, largely based on hazard rather than actual risk. Yet “hazard” simply represents the potential for danger given specific circumstances and/or exposures. For example, water is hazardous because excessive consumption can produce fatal “water intoxification” or hyponatraemia.  But we don’t need to ban or “voluntarily” phase out water.

Accordingly, Safer Choice is forcing product reformulations without justification, and many useful products may be eliminated from the market.  For example, EPA has used this program to force certain flame retardant chemicals from the marketplace, without much regard for the fact that replacements may not work as well.  The end result may well be increased fire risks and needless loss of life and property.

Safer Choice is not only and duplicative of other programs, it has adverse and potentially dangerous market impacts.  Congress can, and should, defund the program with an appropriations line item that prohibits EPA spending on the Safer Choice program.