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Congress Probes White House Delay of Chemical Assessments
WASHINGTON, DC, June 12, 2008 (ENS) - A Congressional committee today questioned the health effects of a new White House policy that delays the completion and release of chemical assessments into a public database maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The database, known as the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, is used by federal agencies, state and local authorities, private companies, and individuals to plan a response when chemicals are found in air, water, or soil. IRIS offers guidance on which of 540 chemical in the database are toxic, and at what levels. The IRIS website gets about 20,000 hits per year.

A backlog of assessments for IRIS extending back for years has been delayed further by a new review process that the EPA and White House Office of Management and Budget revealed on April 10, 2008.

While the EPA has averaged almost 20 assessments a year in draft in the past two years, the Office of Management and Budget has only approved two a year for posting to IRIS.

"The White House has effectively blocked the EPA from posting new health assessments of hazardous chemicals by prolonging the assessments because of inevitable uncertainties about the interaction of chemicals and human health," said Congressman Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Science Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight.

Congressman Brad Miller questions witnesses before the House subcommittee he chairs. (Photo courtesy House of Representatives)

The EPA has not been able to complete assessments for key chemicals of public health concern - dioxins, formaldehyde, napthalene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.

Miller is considering introducing a bill that would restructure the IRIS assessment system "to get politics out of the process."

The hearing today illustrated the connection between the IRIS database and the experiences of individuals and communities with trichloroethylene, TCE, pollution issues.

TCE is a colorless liquid has been widely used since the 1920s as a degreaser for cleaning metal parts. By the 1970s, evidence in animal experiments indicated it might cause cancer.

Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Master Sergeant, testified about watching his young daughter suffer and succumb to leukemia; she was conceived while the family was stationed at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, which had very high levels of TCE in its drinking water.

Drinking or breathing high levels of TCE may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances, which conducted one of the studies on the TCE in Camp LeJeune water. Yet the IRIS assessment is not yet completed.

On Wednesday, Chairman Miller sent a letter to the White House asking for all documents related to the long-delayed assessment of TCE.

Linda Greer, PhD, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's public health program, told the subcommittee that the new White House review process is part of a Bush administration pattern.

"These changes are yet another escalation of the administration's war on science and public health that has gone on for nearly eight years," she said.

"The recent changes to the IRIS process are part of a much broader agenda to sacrifice public health protections and limit public understanding of the risk of toxic chemicals to benefit polluting industries and federal agencies," said Dr. Greer.

"By attempting to weaken the IRIS process," she said, "the administration has zeroed in on one of the earliest and most fundamental steps in protecting public health, in which EPA's scientists identify the health risks posed by exposure to certain chemicals."

The new process includes a lengthy interagency review that lacks transparency and "limits the credibility of IRIS assessments and hinders EPA's ability to manage them," according to testimony in May before the same subcommittee by John Stephenson, director for natural resources and environment of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Stephenson told the lawmakers that the Office of Management and Budget "required EPA to terminate five assessments EPA had initiated to help it implement the Clean Air Act."

"Completion of an IRIS assessment is just the first step in the process protecting people from dangerous exposures to toxic chemicals," said Miller. "People will have been exposed to a known toxic substance for decades, for a generation, while the government engages in study after study. Have we become so obsessed with getting the science right that we have lost sight of our real goal - protecting public health? Or is getting the science right a pretext for obstruction?"

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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