EPA'S IRIS Chemical Risk Database in Shambles: GAO

September 24, 2008

 Interference by the White House Office of Management and Budget has badly damaged the "credibility and timeliness" of IRIS, a key database on chemical risks, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a bipartisan Congressional watchdog agency, says.

The Office of Management and Budget has become known as an extra-legal channel for industry groups to short-circuit legally required procedures for federal agency rulemaking and scientific decisions. By law, most such decisions must be on the record. But OMB offers industry lobbyists a chance to meet off-the-record with White House officials who can then secretly direct the outcome of science and regulation done by agencies.

John B. Stephenson, GAO's Director for Natural Resources and Environment, testified on White House hamstringing of IRIS September 18, 2008, before the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight.

IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) is compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA describes it as "a compilation of electronic reports on specific substances found in the environment and their potential to cause human health effects." It is online and searchable.

The nonprofit watchdog OMB Watch reports the following: "In April, EPA released its new assessment process. The new process was not made available for public comment. This lack of transparency and public feedback occurred despite Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assurances that EPA would circulate a draft to the public before moving forward with the final process. Changes included one apparently demanded by OMB, which allows other agencies, including OMB, to comment on IRIS assessments. The comments from OMB and other federal agencies about the scientific assessments will not be made public nor be noted in any peer review process. Additionally, EPA changed the definition of the scientific assessment process to include policy considerations, where previously, science and policy were distinct."

In testimony delivered Sept. 18, Stephenson said "The IRIS database is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because the agency has not been able to routinely complete timely, credible assessments or decrease a backlog of 70 ongoing assessments."

Stephenson said EPA's efforts to move forward "have been thwarted by a combination of factors including the imposition of external requirements, the growing complexity and scope of risk assessments, and certain EPA management decisions. In addition, the changes to the IRIS assessment process that EPA was considering at the time of our review would have added to the already unacceptable level of delays in completing IRIS assessments and further limited the credibility of the assessments."