Warning that “decision-making gridlock” has bogged down efforts to protect public health, a national panel of scientists recommended Wednesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overhaul its strategy for analyzing the hazards of toxic chemicals and pollutants.
Risk assessment is the scientific tool that policymakers use to guide their decisions about how and when to regulate chemicals in air, water, food and consumer products. But the assessments, often decades-long and cumbersome, fail to provide the answers that policymakers need to make their decisions, according to a panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences.
The reforms proposed by the committee would be the first major overhaul of the federal agency's framework for analyzing environmental risks in 25 years. Policy experts, environmentalists and others have complained for years that the EPA has been stricken with “paralysis by analysis.”
“Risk assessment is at a crossroads, and its credibility is being challenged,” wrote the National Research Council panel, which was chaired by Thomas Burke, an associate dean and professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Noting that the EPA's risk reports are "subject to considerable scientific, political and public scrutiny," the scientists recommended a series of changes at EPA that they described as "more coherent, consistent and transparent."
"Global impacts are combining with the high financial and political stakes of risk management to place an unprecedented pressure on risk assessors in EPA. But risk assessment remains essential to the agency's mission to ensure protection of public health and the environment. Much work is needed to improve the scientific status, utility, and public credibility of risk assessment," the 15 scientists wrote in their report, entitled "Science and Decisions."
The problems, they said, include "long delays in completing complex risk assessments, some of which take decades to complete; lack of data, which leads to important uncertainty in risk assessments; and the need for risk assessment of many unevaluated chemicals in the marketplace and emerging agents."
The committee was convened at the request of the EPA in an effort to update its strategy, which was modeled after a 1983 National Research Council report, dubbed “the Red Book.” The experts spent 18 months reviewing EPA’s risk assessments and nearly a year preparing the 382-page report.
Top officials from EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment were briefed last Tuesday on the committee's findings, and observers said they seemed supportive of the recommendations.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said the agency welcomed the report "because of our commitment to providing the best possible risk assessments to protect human health." Agency officials had no specific comments about the recommendations, but Ackerman said they will review them and then develop a plan for implementing them.
The new approach would require a major transformation at the EPA, as well as substantial commitments by the President and Congress, the panel reported.