Under the anti-leadership of Administrator Stephen Johnson, the EPA has moved to torpedo any move to address global warming or curb polluters. These efforts take many forms. For example, after complaints from an industry lobbying group the American Chemistry Council, in August 2007 the EPA removed the comments of an award winning former EPA researcher and expert on neurotoxins Deborah Rice from a February 2007 external review panel report on the family of flame retardants (used primarily in electronics) known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Two of these, penta and octa, had been banned in 2004. Another deca (deca bromo diphenyl ether) is still in wide use. The ACC in a May 3, 2007 letter charged that Rice the review panel’s chair was biased and had a conflict of interest because she had previously testified before the Maine legislature on behalf of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention where she worked and advocated a phase out of the use of deca in televisions, electronics, mattresses and furniture. The group was also critical of a 2003 Swedish study (Viberg) which linked deca to problems in neuro development in mice. (Metabolites of deca are thought to have DDT like persistence in the environment with concomitant potential for concentration in the food chain.) In other words, from the ACC’s point of view, precisely because Rice was expert enough on the subject of deca to take an official position on it in her capacity as a toxicologist at Maine’s CDC, this disqualified her from the EPA’s expert panel. The EPA bought the industry lobbyists’ argument, despite the fact that the Environmental Working Group found in a review of 7 EPA panels from 2007 seventeen panelists who were employed by the chemical industry or had made pro-industry statements on the safety of chemicals they were evaluating. Needless to say, they were not removed or their comments and input redacted from their reports.
A report released April 23, 2008 by the Union of Concerned Scientists found many instances of political interference in the work of EPA scientists. The study consisted of a questionnaire sent to 5,419 EPA scientists which genereated 1,586 responses. Of these, 889 (56%) reported such interference at least once in the last 5 years. 394 (25%) said they had experienced occasional to frequent instances of EPA officials misrepresenting their findings. 285 (18%) had seen selective or incomplete use of data to justify a particular regulatory outcome. 224 (14%) said they had been directed to exclude or alter technical data. Of 969 EPA scientists with more than 10 years of experience, 409 (43%) said political interference has increased in the last 5 years in comparison with the previous 5 years. 43 (4%) said it was less frequent. 492 (31%) said they could not express their views openly within the EPA; 382 (24%) said they felt they could not do so even outside the agency. Scientists who worked on regulations and on environmental risk assessments reported the most political interference, with the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) being the most frequently named offender.
An April 29, 2008 GAO report found numerous problems in the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System which does assessments of the health risks of some 540 chemicals (for example, what risk of cancer do they pose, and at what level of exposure?). At the same time that other offices in the EPA, as well as state and local authorities have asked for assessments on hundreds of other chemicals, IRIS’s production of these assessments as virtually ground to a halt. In 2003, the EPA estimated it needed to do 50 risk assessments a year to keep up with demand. However, in 2005 it finished 4. In 2006, it completed 2.
In 2007, the primary focus of the GAO report, the EPA had 77 IRIS studies in process. On December 31 of that year, 70 were ongoing, 5 had been suspended by the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which demanded further studies. As in 2006 only 2 IRIS assessments were completed. Of the 70 which had not been completed, 48 had been in process for more than 5 years, and 12 of the 48 for more than 9 years. In particular, the GAO noted the case of trichloroethylene (TCE) an industrial degreasing agent and the most frequently reported organic contaminant in drinking water. It has been linked to cancer and other health hazards. Yet peer review questions about its cancer risk caused the EPA to pull its IRIS assessment in 1989. The EPA did not begin a new assessment until 1998 and this is not expected to be completed before 2010 at the earliest, a lag of 21 years at least.
The problems with IRIS aren’t just confined to the glacial pace at which it comes up with risk assessments for new chemicals but extends to those already in the system. As far back as 2003, the EPA thought that the data on 287 of the 540 chemicals in IRIS were out of date and that their risk assessments needed to be reviewed. In the intervening years, this number can only have grown.
There are several reasons why IRIS has not been able to keep up: funding, staff, the increasing complexity of doing the assessments, etc. but the real culprit is once again Bush’s OMB. It conducts not one but two reviews of the assessments. It seeks input from departments and agencies (such as DOD, DOE, and NASA) that might be affected by the assessments and that have an interest in watering them down and delaying them. The OMB reviews are not transparent. The input is treated as internal Executive Branch communications and is not made public. All of this happens before the assessment is let out for peer review. Worse the current leadership at the EPA wants to formalize this interference and give other agencies and departments even greater control over IRIS. With millions of chemicals in use in our society, it would be nice to know what the best guess health risks are of a handful of the more important ones, but as always happens in the Bush Administration anything that smacks of regulation is seen as something to be minimized, neutralized, or eliminated.
In fact, on April 10, 2008 EPA released its new guidelines for IRIS effective immediately. A GAO report of May 21, 2008 estimates that the EPA’s “streamlined” process will take 6-8 years to complete for each chemical and be out of date by the time it is finished.
On October 3, 2008, the EPA announced it would not set a standard for perchlorate in water because it did not pose a health risk as defined under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Perchlorate interferes with the uptake of iodine by the thyroid and has been linked to health problems in pregnant women and newborns. The Pentagon has resisted regulation of perchlorate because it is used in solid rocket fuels. The chemical occurs in the drinking water of about 16 million Americans.