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Chemical Regulation

US EPA delayed, dropped chemical risk assessments

Agency’s decision to stop formaldehyde review raises concerns about possible ethics violations

by Britt Erickson
March 5, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 10

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Credit: Shutterstock
EPA has halted a review of the health risks of formaldehyde, which is commonly used in resins and adhesives found in composite wood products.

Top officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency have halted evaluations of the human health risks of nine chemicals, including formaldehyde, a March 4 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes.

This comes after the EPA postponed the release of many chemical assessments for nearly six months last year, says the GAO, the nonpartisan, investigative arm of Congress. The delay occurred while EPA leaders reevaluated the priorities of the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. IRIS assessments are used by the EPA to set contaminant cleanup levels for water, air, and soil, as well as by state and local governments.

In May, the IRIS program was working on 22 chemical assessments, according to the GAO. By December, the number dwindled to 13, and the agency reassigned several staffers to work part-time on risk assessments required under 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). That law governs the manufacture of commercial chemicals.

From June to December 2018, the EPA asked its program and regional offices to choose which chemicals the IRIS program should continue working on. The agency received responses from the Office of Water and the Office of Land and Emergency Management for 11 chemicals: arsenic (inorganic), chromium (VI), mercury salts, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (for noncancer effects), perfluorononanoic acid, perfluorobutanoic acid, perfluorohexanoic acid, perfluorohexane sulfonate, perfluorodecanoic acid, and vanadium and its compounds. EPA announced in December that IRIS would focus on those 11 chemicals, plus two others—ethyl tertiary butyl ether and tert-butyl alcohol. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation did not indicate it needed IRIS assessments for any chemical.

The EPA provided no explanation of why it put the other nine chemical assessments on hold. As the GAO points out, IRIS assessments for four of the nine chemicals—acrylonitrile, n-butyl alcohol, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—were in the final stages of development.

US Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who requested the GAO report, and other Democrats in the Senate, along with House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), are urging the EPA finalize the formaldehyde assessment. They are also asking the agency to investigate whether David Dunlap, an EPA political appointee who oversees IRIS, violated the EPA’s scientific integrity policy by stopping the formaldehyde assessment.

Dunlap is recused from working on the formaldehyde assessment because he formerly worked for Koch Industries. The company has a long history of working with other chemical producers to stop the EPA from releasing the assessment, which shows a link between formaldehyde and leukemia.

“EPA’s continued efforts to delay the publication of a report that describes the risk of cancer associated with exposure to formaldehyde will do nothing to eliminate or reduce that risk. Moreover, delaying this report only serves to further erode the public trust in the Agency whose mission is to protect human health and the environment,” lawmakers wrote in a March 4 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

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