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Policy

Federal Efforts To Assess Chemicals Aren’t Duplicative, Government Accountability Office Finds

Agencies’ work sometimes overlaps, report says

by Britt E. Erickson
November 17, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 46

TOXIC EXPOSURE
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Federal agencies often disagree over what levels of exposure to hazardous chemicals are considered safe.
Photo of a man in chemical suit entering inside cargo tank on chemical ship for cleaning operation.
Credit: Shutterstock
Federal agencies often disagree over what levels of exposure to hazardous chemicals are considered safe.

Multiple federal agencies have a hand in evaluating the toxicity of chemicals. Each agency conducts hazard assessments for a specific goal, such as setting allowable levels of chemicals in the workplace, the environment, food, or consumer products. Various agencies often evaluate the same substance using disparate approaches—and in many cases, they end up setting different levels of exposure to the chemical as being protective of people’s health.

To make this process more efficient and unified, some congressional lawmakers and industry groups are calling for consolidation of hazardous chemical assessments into one federal agency. They question why limited government resources are being spent by several agencies to evaluate the same chemicals. At a minimum, they say, government agencies should better coordinate their chemical assessments.

A recent report, however, concludes that the federal system for handling the risks of hazardous chemicals is “fragmented and overlapping,” but not duplicative. The system is fragmented because more than one agency provides information on the toxicity of chemicals, says the report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. And federal efforts overlap because multiple agencies have similar goals, such as identifying which chemicals cause cancer. But agencies are not wasting taxpayer dollars by duplicating efforts, GAO concludes, because no two are doing the same activities or providing the same services to the same recipients, such as the public or regulators.

Federal Risk Assessment At A Glance

Five federal agencies are responsible for most federal risk assessments of chemicals.

Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: This agency evaluates the effects of exposures to hazardous chemicals at waste sites. It often assesses effects for three durations: acute (14 days or fewer), intermediate (15–364 days), and chronic (365 days or more). It has published assessments for 319 chemicals.

Environmental Protection Agency: EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) increasingly provides the foundation for air pollution and water quality standards. IRIS assessments examine the effects of lifetime or chronic exposure to a chemical in the environment. IRIS assessments cover about 550 chemicals.

National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health: This agency develops recommended workplace exposure levels that are used to support regulations by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

National Toxicology Program: This interagency group coordinates chemical toxicity assessment work across the Department of Health & Human Services. It assembles information about human carcinogens in its “Report on Carcinogens.” That report currently lists 243 chemicals.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration: OSHA assesses the effects of exposure to a chemical in the workplace for 40 hours per week over a lifetime, as well as short-term exposures.

The report examines chemical risk assessment activities at five federal agencies—the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration—as well as a dozen state agencies. GAO finds that each agency involved in assessing the hazards of chemicals is driven by laws with different requirements.

For example, ATSDR evaluates the risk of chemicals at hazardous waste sites. If ATSDR finds evidence of adverse health effects associated with a chemical, the agency will estimate safe levels of exposure for that substance. Officials use these values to determine what, if any, steps are needed to protect communities near hazardous waste sites from contaminants in air, soil, or water.

EPA, meanwhile, also estimates safe levels of exposure for hazardous chemicals in air, soil, and water—but in a much broader way than ATSDR. The environmental agency typically assesses risks that chemicals pose to the U.S. public, often over an entire lifetime. Much of the focus about federal risk assessments has targeted EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which provides the foundation for many environmental regulations, such as air pollution limits and water quality standards.

But when IRIS assessment values differ from those derived by ATSDR or any other agency, confusion happens and industry—notably chemical makers—raises concerns. This happens particularly when EPA’s safe exposure levels are set lower, or more protective, than those of other agencies.

To determine how often such values differ, GAO compared values about toxicity from inhalation of 10 chemicals. It examined values developed by ATSDR, EPA, NIOSH, OSHA, and a state agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The agencies’ values differ greatly, in some cases by orders of magnitude, GAO finds. However, the values are difficult to compare directly, GAO notes, because they are “based on different chemical toxicity assessment activities of differing exposure durations.” For example, EPA’s safe value for hexavalent chromium is for chronic exposure throughout a lifetime, while NIOSH’s value is for workplace exposure of 40 hours per week.

Despite concluding that federal chemical assessments are not duplicative, GAO’s report has sparked calls from industry for a single agency to conduct such assessments. A chemical manufacturers’ trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), says it is time to stop multiple agencies from duplicating work on chemical risk assessments.

Earlier this year at a meeting of the Society of Toxicology, ACC reported that of the 187 hazardous pollutants that EPA is required to control under the Clean Air Act, 61 chemicals (33%) have been assessed by the agency’s IRIS program and 33 (18%) by ATSDR. Of those chemicals, 22 (12%) were assessed by both agencies.

“At a minimum there must be better coordination and a reduction in overlap among these agencies in order to ensure that these programs inform efficient and effective protection of human health,” ACC said in response to GAO’s report.

GAO finds some evidence that all five federal agencies covered in its report coordinate with one another, but it also finds that protection of confidential business information is a major barrier hindering such cooperation. Each agency—and often, offices within the same agency—operates under laws with differing provisions about the protection of proprietary information. These provisions make data sharing impossible in many cases and hinder the ability of agencies to share resources, GAO says.

To address the coordination challenge, GAO recommends that the White House National Science & Technology Council get involved. The council is an interagency group that works on science and technology policies that span federal agencies. It has previously helped coordinate agency activities on topics such as nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals in the environment.

“By having an interagency body to address these and any future cross-cutting challenges, the five selected federal agencies would be positioned to better coordinate their assessment activities in the most effective and efficient manner,” GAO says.  

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