When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crafts a regulatory standard—how much arsenic is safe in drinking water, for example—its staff members rely on scientific assessments of the chemical's toxicity. The quality of these agency reviews have been criticized by industry and on Capitol Hill—criticisms that were backed up earlier this year in a study by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC). Now Congress has directed EPA to document improvements to the process and to ask the academies to review up to three of its toxicity assessments.
The chemical assessments, held in a database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), can be quite controversial. EPA's assessment of formaldehyde, an important ingredient for the chemical industry, was so politically charged that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) in 2009 held up the confirmation of EPA's science adviser until the agency agreed to have an NRC expert panel evaluate the assessment. That review found technical problems, such as inadequate evidence for the conclusion that formaldehyde causes leukemia, as well as more general shortcomings in the clarity and transparency of the assessment. The panel made a host of recommendations, including standardizing descriptions of the strength of evidence and uncertainty.
The new requirements, described in a few paragraphs within a $915 billion 2012 spending bill for several federal agencies that the president is expected to sign tomorrow, directs EPA to adopt these recommendations. The agency is already taking steps toward that goal, says a spokesperson. "EPA continues to strengthen the Integrated Risk Information System Program (IRIS), as part of an effort to ensure that the best possible science is used to protect human health and the environment. EPA is enhancing this important program to be more responsive to the needs of the agency and its government partners."