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GAO Report Finds EPA Unable to Adequately Protect Public Health

(Beyond Pesticides, January 30, 2009) In a report released last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) added the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to its list of agencies in most need of reform. EPA appears in GAO’s High Risk Series: An Update, alongside the newly added U.S. Financial Regulatory System and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Reasons for EPA’s addition include a lack of transparency and information needed to limit potential health risks caused by chemicals under review, echoing testimony given to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last spring.

“EPA does not have sufficient chemical assessment information to determine whether it should establish controls to limit public exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks,” the report states. “Actions are needed to streamline and increase the transparency of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) and to enhance EPA’s ability under the Toxic Substances Control Act to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry.”

New EPA administrator Lisa Jackson responded to the report with a prepared statement. “It is clear that we are not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace, and the environment,” she said. “It is now time to revise and strengthen EPA’s chemicals management and risk assessment programs.”

Specific issues raised include the potential obsolescence of EPA’s IRIS, which “contains EPA’s scientific position on the potential human health effects of exposure to more than 540 chemicals . . . because the agency has not been able to complete timely, credible assessments or decrease its backlog of 70 ongoing assessments.” Sixty-nine percent of those assessments had been ongoing for more than five years and some “that have been in progress the longest cover key chemicals likely to cause cancer or other significant health effects.”

For industrial chemicals, EPA is required to “demonstrate that certain health or environmental risks are likely before it can require companies to further test their chemicals.” GAO compares this negatively with Europe’s use of more precautionary policies, stating, “In contrast, the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) (REACH) legislation generally places the burden on companies to provide data on the chemicals they produce and to address the risks those chemicals pose to human health and the environment.” Furthermore, EPA has not responded to recommendations made to reduce agency shortcomings and has “not sufficiently improved the scientific information available to support critical decisions regarding whether and how to protect human health from toxic chemicals.”

GAO concludes, “Without greater attention to EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals, the nation lacks assurance that human health and the environment are being adequately protected.”

Sources: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Buzzflash


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