At age 74, many people would opt to head to the golf course, settle down with a good book, or travel, rather than take a demanding full-time job.
But not Kenneth Olden. In July, Olden took on a position that’s in the crosshairs of controversy in Washington, D.C. As director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Olden oversees EPA’s chemicals assessment program—the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). The program has been a lightning rod for criticism from Congress, industry, and environmental activists for years.
The assessments that the IRIS program produces include EPA’s scientific judgment on the safe level of exposure to a chemical. Although these documents are not regulations, federal and state environmental decisionmakers rely on them as they craft rules and set pollution cleanup standards. EPA’s drafting of these assessments gets a lot of attention from chemical manufacturers and other companies that are liable for cleanups.
“I had anticipated retirement,” says Olden, who directed the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program from 1991 to 2005. He was the first African American to head an NIH institute. Since leaving NIEHS, Olden has worked at Harvard University and most recently was founding dean of Hunter College’s School of Public Health. But despite the call of a more leisurely life, Olden decided to tack one more accomplishment onto his curriculum vitae.
“What motivated me to postpone my plans was the opportunity to make hazard assessment, risk assessment, and environmental protection less adversarial,” he tells C&EN. “If you’re fortunate, as I have been, you give back. It seems like a small thing to give a few years back.”
He has a goal for his work at EPA: “We need to get more civility, more collaboration in environmental health decision making.”
Olden has his work cut out for him. Environmental groups, Democrats in the House of Representatives and Senate, and congressional investigators have criticized IRIS for years because of the sluggish pace of the assessments.
Industry, meanwhile, has attacked the process and assumptions EPA uses in compiling the assessments, calling them outdated and faulty. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences provided EPA with unsolicited advice on how the agency should improve IRIS. After that, Republicans in the House insinuated that the science-based IRIS program damages the economy because it is biased to ensure that environmental regulations are tougher than they need to be.
“We are taking a look at all of those issues,” Olden says of the sundry allegations against IRIS. “I have a reputation of not coming in with fixed views of what’s right or what’s wrong.” If claims have veracity, he says, EPA will rectify the problems.
Olden seeks to defuse much of the criticism lobbed at IRIS through greater transparency about how the program operates.
“When people don’t know exactly what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, it creates misgivings.” That, he says, is likely to change “once people understand the resources we have to do our job and how we utilize those resources and that we use the best science available to us at the time when we make our decision.”
“Critics will be able to see exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he continues. “Once we do that, people will understand that we’re doing as good a job as one can do given scientific uncertainties.”
Olden disputes a claim made by Calvin M. Dooley, chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association. At a congressional hearing in 2011, Dooley testified that “IRIS is broken.”
“I don’t think the IRIS program is broken,” Olden states calmly. “Any enterprise can get better. IRIS can also get better. But I don’t think there are any issues that require crisis action. Scientific leadership here is outstanding,” says Olden, who earned a doctorate in cell biology and biochemistry at Temple University.
“We just need to change the tone” of discussions about EPA’s chemical assessments, he says. “We will still have differences. That is to be expected because honest people can disagree about the science.”
As a major step in changing IRIS, Olden in September announced that EPA will ask industry and other concerned groups to provide their views before the agency decides on which scientific data to rely for assessment of a chemical. Also, EPA is establishing publicly available criteria it will follow for either including scientific studies in these assessments or excluding them (C&EN, Sept. 24, page 9).
In addition, Olden is encouraging those with a stake in EPA’s chemical assessments—who he describes as the American public, including industry—to provide input to the agency. For instance, the agency held a webinar on Nov. 13 to garner the public’s views on IRIS.
Despite the energy Olden is putting into public outreach, he says this sort of effort didn’t come naturally to him. Olden makes a claim that many scientists can relate to: “I am an introvert.” He adds, “I know that comes as a surprise to a lot of people.
“But to do what I wanted to do—take the science and translate into public health practice, to impact human life—you have to acquire certain skills.” What makes the job easier, he says, is that “I understand and like people.”
Although Olden is pouring gusto into his work, he says that he will retire after he leaves this position. For now, he says, “I’m enthusiastic and energized because it’s an opportunity to make a difference.”