The Bush Administration today said it would rework a controversial proposal to broadly reform the way the government assesses risks after an expert panel released a report calling the approach "fundamentally flawed."
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposed the new guidelines in January 2006, saying that they would improve the "quality and objectivity" of risk assessments carried out by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. John Graham, who headed the program that prepared the guidelines before leaving last winter for the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California, said today that OMB was concerned about the uneven quality of federal risk assessments, citing recent regulatory reviews of dioxin, mercury, perchlorate, and mad cow disease.
While many industry groups endorsed the guidelines, environmentalists and public health advocates argued that they undermined the ability of government agencies to regulate health hazards by setting technical standards that were difficult or even impossible to satisfy. The guidelines, for example, called for agencies to present a range of "plausible values" for the risk posed by a particular chemical, and then to calculate a "central" or "expected" estimate of risk. "It seemed pretty clear to me that the intent was to tie the hands of agencies," says Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.
In an unusual step, the White House requested a review by the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. "We had expected that we'd review this and present modifications," says John Ahearne, director of the Sigma Xi Center, who chaired the NRC committee that issued today's report. But upon closer examination, Ahearne says, the committee decided that the proposal was broken beyond repair.
Among its problems were a confusing, overly broad definition of risk assessment, the omission of such crucial aspects of risk assessment as decisions about what one should do in the absence of adequate information, and a presumption that sufficient data would be readily available. More fundamentally, Ahearne says, the White House also hadn't made the case that these reforms, which might be very costly to implement, were even needed. The 18-person panel agreed unanimously that the guidelines should be thrown out and that OMB should start over.
Sharp shouted with glee this morning when a reporter told her about the NRC report. The White House was more subdued. Steven Aitken, acting administrator of the OMB office that issued the guidelines, says that the Bush Administration "will not finalize the guidelines in their current form. We'll review the report and think about how we can develop new guidelines."