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Chemical toxicity assessments by U.S. EPA to be reshaped, if bill passes

Congressional committee votes to give industry and other agencies greater input and to shift responsibility for IRIS program from research office

by Cheryl Hogue
July 25, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 31


Industry and other federal agencies would have more opportunities to sway the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicity assessments of chemicals under a bill a congressional committee approved July 24.

Man's hands holding a piece of particle board and inserting a wooden dowel into a hole drilled into it.
Credit: Shutterstock
EPA's chemical hazard assessment of formaldehyde, used in pressed wood products, drew controversy.

The legislation, H.R. 6468, would require EPA to consider hazard assessments from industry, other federal agencies, states, academic researchers, or international agencies if those analyses meet standards laid out in the legislation. Many Democrats oppose the bill, saying it would amplify industry’s influence of assessments. It could also give federal agencies facing pollution liability, such as the Defense Department, more clout over EPA assessments, which are used to set cleanup standards.

The measure would also recast the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a program that Republican lawmakers have attacked and President Donald J. Trump has proposed to defund. IRIS chemical assessments are now centralized in the EPA Office of Research & Development. The bill would disperse that work among EPA regulatory programs that oversee commercial chemicals or pollution released to air, water, or land.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the sponsor of the bill, says this change would allow regulatory offices to tailor chemical assessments to their specific needs.

H.R. 6468 has the backing of the major lobbying arm of the U.S. chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council. The EPA regulatory programs “are in the best position to understand the current human health and environmental challenges that require the development of chemical assessments,” writes ACC CEO Cal Dooley in a letter of support to Biggs.

But Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who opposes the bill, says divvying up the job of chemical assessments among EPA’s regulatory programs introduces opportunities for agency political appointees to sway outcomes of assessments. Assessments should remain the job of scientific experts in a part of EPA that doesn’t regulate, he argues.

Plus, if programs focus only on their own regulatory needs, he says, assessments may not be complete. For instance, McNerney says, if EPA’s air pollution regulation office assesses a chemical’s toxicity for possible regulation under the Clean Air Act, it may not consider exposure to the compound via drinking water.

The Science, Space & Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted along party lines to approve the measure. It now goes to the full House for a vote.

Given its Republican majority, the House may pass the bill. But it’s unlikely the Senate would take it up before the November general election.


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