A SMALL BUT vitally important program within the Environmental Protection Agency is in a fight for its life. The Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, is the only division of the EPA that independently assesses the toxicity of chemicals. IRIS supplies evaluations used by states, tribes, private developers, Superfund sites, and foreign countries, among others, and has long been a target of the companies whose profits can rise and fall based on its findings.
A meeting at the National Academy of Sciences on Thursday and Friday to review the program’s recent progress brought IRIS’s defenders together with its critics. Though the agenda focused on IRIS’s scientific process and whether the program has adequately incorporated guidance the academy gave it in 2014, questions about its survival permeated the meeting.
It’s not clear how IRIS might lose its ability to continue independently evaluating chemicals, but one possibility is that it would be folded into another division of the EPA, as the 2018 Senate Appropriations Bill proposes. According to that plan, staff would be moved from the current division of the agency, which is primarily concerned with science, to the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which deals with regulation.
The transfer from a scientific to a regulatory part of the agency would hobble the program, according to many familiar with its work. “Moving it would bias the risk assessments,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “You should try to keep the science separate, then use the independent science for regulation.”
An arguably bigger cause for concern is the current leader of that regulatory office: Nancy Beck, who worked at the American Chemistry Council before joining the EPA and seems to have maintained her allegiance to industry.
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