senior scientist for EDF:
Today, Heidi Vogt at the Wall Street Journal reported on the systematic efforts by the Trump Administration to derail chemical assessments under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).
Decisions are being made as I write by conflicted EPA political appointees, not only to derail the beleaguered IRIS assessment for the carcinogen formaldehyde, but to transfer any further assessment of the chemical to be under the control of those same political appointees.
The WSJ article cites an upcoming report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office (GAO) that notes “EPA leadership in October directed the heads of the agency’s various programs to limit the number of chemicals they wanted IRIS to study or continue researching. Nine of 16 assessments were then dropped, including one that looked at whether exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk of leukemia that ‘has been drafted and is ready to be released for public comment.’” The chemical industry has long sought to undermine the findings of numerous governmental authorities that have identified the dangers posed by formaldehyde, one of the industry’s biggest cash cows.
IRIS itself has also long been a target of the chemical and allied industries, including those well represented by EPA political appointees who are now able to drive the assault on IRIS from inside the agency.
This post will provide more of the backstory to the WSJ’s excellent reporting. It reveals additional decisions being made as I write by conflicted political appointees, not only to derail the beleaguered IRIS assessment for formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, but to transfer any further assessment of the chemical to be under the control of those same political appointees. What is happening here we believe is ripe for further investigation.
A brief history of IRIS and its formaldehyde assessment
IRIS, established in 1985, is situated within the science branch of EPA, the Office of Research and Development (ORD). That placement is intentional: ORD is not a regulatory branch, and placing IRIS there was intended to create an arms-length separation and a degree of independence from the EPA program offices that make regulatory decisions, decisions that necessarily consider more than science and can get caught up in political battles. As stated on EPA’s website:
The placement of the IRIS Program in ORD is intentional. It ensures that IRIS can develop impartial toxicity information independent of its use by EPA’s program and regional offices to set national standards and clean up hazardous sites.
The science IRIS does serves all parts of EPA – all of its program offices and its 10 EPA regions – where it is used to inform air and water pollution limits, waste site cleanup standards and other risk levels and regulatory actions. IRIS chemical hazard characterizations are also widely relied on by other federal agencies and other countries, as well as state and local governments (see this letter of support for IRIS from the Environmental Council of the States).
The IRIS assessment of formaldehyde has a long, convoluted, and contentious history that I will only touch on here before focusing on the latest chapter of this saga.
- In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the assessment and issued a report quite critical of the assessment’s structure and its presentation and analysis of evidence, though not of its conclusions regarding formaldehyde’s hazards. The report made numerous recommendations for improving the assessment and the IRIS process. That report led EPA to undertake a major overhaul of IRIS, in addition to redoing its formaldehyde assessment.
- In 2014, the NAS reviewed IRIS’ progress in implementing its recommendations, and issued a new report that gave the program high marks, noting it had made more progress at a faster pace than had been expected.
- Also in 2014, the NAS affirmed a separate finding by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and linked to nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia. In response to that finding, the chemical industry’s main trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), issued a press release smearing the NTP.
- In 2017, EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) also reviewed IRIS’ progress and issued a highly favorable report.
- In April 2018, the NAS conducted yet another review of IRIS and again specifically assessed the extent to which EPA had made progress in responding to its earlier 2011 and 2014 recommendations, yielding yet another positive report. In response, ACC issued a press release claiming it knows better than the nation’s most august scientific body.
- In January 2018, EPA’s IRIS report to Congress indicated that “IRIS plans to deliver an External Review of its Formaldehyde Assessment for public comment and peer review in FY18.”
Enter the Trump EPA…