EPA is undermining the science that helps protect us from pollutants

EPA is undermining the science that helps protect us from pollutants
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A critical government program that assesses the toxicity of chemicals to human health is now, itself, at risk. The Trump administration is working to dismantle science at the EPA and that includes weakening or sidelining the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program — a move that would cut into protections for American families from serious health hazards posed by toxic chemicals and pollution. 

The administration’s rhetoric about “burdensome” regulation doesn’t apply here because IRIS doesn’t issue any regulations. It’s a program of top-notch scientists charged with understanding the impacts chemicals and pollutants pose to our health.

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EPA and other federal agencies frequently use IRIS chemical assessments to determine how best to protect Americans from environmental contributors to cancer, heart disease, asthma, and other dangers. State and local governments also rely on the information developed by IRIS to protect their residents.

 

As NPR recently reported, IRIS chemical assessments have been critical for people living in places like LaPlace, Louisiana, where a chemical called chloroprene has been making generations of Americans sick. Chloroprene emissions are coming from the Denka Performance Elastomer LLC chemical plant, a facility owned by DuPont until 2014.

The IRIS assessment of chloroprene concludes that it is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and EPA and the people of St. Charles Parish are using the assessment to understand what levels of exposure to this chemical are hazardous. 

So far EPA has installed additional air monitors to measure levels of chloroprene in the community — a step that will hopefully expedite restrictions to cut harmful levels of exposure. NPR reported that in some places levels of chloroprene are measuring well above EPA’s exposure limit.

So why would such an important, non-regulatory program be at risk?  Because the facts IRIS reveals threaten the interests of certain segments of the chemical industry, which now have incredible influence over EPA’s political leadership.

Many political appointees at EPA came directly from representing the industries they are now charged with overseeing, including the chemical industry. Under Mr. Pruitt, the agency has loosened safeguards on their former industries, delaying, cancelling or weakening rules on everything from chemicals to cars to coal.

Some of the nominees for environmental position – such as Michael Dourson or Kathleen Harnett White – were so extreme the Senate refused to confirm them. But in many other cases, Congress has deferred to the president’s choices. And, unfortunately, the Trump EPA hasn’t imposed any real conditions or constraints on these officials to manage their conflicts of interest. The result is many decision makers went straight from advocating for companies or industries with direct financial stakes in the outcome of EPA decision — to making those decisions.

The attack on IRIS, a program that has enjoyed strong support by the public health and scientific communities, is just one part of a larger push to undermine science at the agency.

Last year, Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE barred highly qualified academic scientists from EPA advisory boards by excluding any who receive grants from the agency to conduct research. The effect of this directive is to skew the panels towards industry scientists. 

If Dow or DuPont pays you, you’re free to advise EPA — but if you get an EPA grant due to the merits of your research, you’re somehow too biased. Pruitt has also scrubbed EPA sites of important scientific information.

On the funding front, the Senate majority posted a bill last November that called for eliminating the IRIS program and re-assigning its staff out of the scientific arm of the agency and into the regulatory toxics office — a move that will deprive other EPA offices, states, and local governments of critical lRIS expertise. Meanwhile, the president’s proposed budget would slash the entire scientific arm of the agency by nearly half. 

These are moves that would be devastating for our efforts to protect public health. Congress should stand up for their constituents by soundly rejecting efforts to undermine science at EPA.

Jennifer McPartland is a senior scientist in the health program at Environmental Defense Fund where she works to reduce harmful chemical exposures through policy and market-based action. McPartland is a member of the Chemical Safety for Sustainability Subcommittee of the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors.