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Scientific Integrity On The Line

Credibility of EPA's chemical assessments is in jeopardy

by Cheryl Hogue
May 5, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 18

A NEW BUSH ADMINISTRATION policy is limiting the scientific credibility of EPA's assessments of the health risks from pollutants, the Government Accountability Office says.

GAO recommends that Congress force EPA to suspend the policy, which gives other federal agencies formal opportunities to delay and influence the content of EPA's assessments. Unveiled on April 10, the policy affects entries into the agency's Integrated Risk Information System, a database containing EPA's scientific judgment on the safe daily exposures of some 540 chemicals (C&EN, April 21, page 9). Federal and state regulators rely on this information as they limit contaminants in water or set cleanup levels at polluted sites.

In a report released, GAO sharply criticizes the policy, saying it lets federal agencies facing cleanup liability, including the Defense and Energy Departments, sway EPA's scientific assessments.

GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, says the public won't be able to determine whether or how other agencies influence the EPA assessments. This is because the Bush Administration is claiming that communications between agencies about the assessments are protected from public disclosure.

But such secrecy is "inconsistent with the principle of sound science," the report says. "It is critical that input from all parties, particularly agencies that may be affected by the outcome, be publicly available to alleviate concerns of potential bias in the assessments."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee and requested the report, says EPA scientists need to independently assess chemicals "without secret interference" from other agencies or the White House.

Meanwhile, GAO found that EPA's heavily used chemical database "is at serious risk of becoming obsolete" because the agency has been unable to complete timely, credible updates of existing assessments.

EPA has said it needs to complete 50 new or updated assessments annually to keep up with regulators' needs. Despite devoting more funds and additional employees to this work, the agency finished only four in 2005 and two each in 2006 and 2007. Some draft assessments are falling into "a perpetual cycle of updates and revisions" and are not getting finalized, GAO says.



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