The federal agency, according to the committee's report, “is struggling to keep up with demands for hazard and dose-response information but is challenged by a lack of resources, including funding and trained staff.”
Lacking clear and timely risk reports from scientists, policymakers cannot readily write rules necessary to protect the public and ecosystems from hazardous chemicals and contaminants.
“The regulatory risk assessment process is bogged down; major risk assessments for some chemicals take more than 10 years,” the scientists wrote in their report.
For example, in the case of trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing solvent contaminating many water supplies, the EPA has been assessing its dangers since the 1980s. Analyses of dioxin and formaldehyde also have lasted for several decades.
For other chemicals, including perchlorate and arsenic, two contaminants in water supplies, the EPA’s risk conclusions have been disputed and interpreted in many different ways, leading to controversial regulatory decisions.
Dr. Richard Jackson, a pediatrician and chair of environmental health sciences at UCLA's School of Public Health, said he is troubled that "the immensity of new science has swamped our ability to interpret it all and turn it into sensible and health protective policy." The existing system, he said, "is just not working and is not protective, especially for children."
Carl Cranor, a philosophy professor at University of California, Riverside who specializes in toxic substances policy, agreed, saying that the new report contains many good recommendations.
“They correctly recognize that risk assessments have been bogged down for a long time and that is certainly true," Cranor said. "Dioxin is notorious."
Many experts say that the strong influence of industry groups has hampered the EPA's process of judging the dangers of chemicals that may be harming human health and ecosystems.
"There’s every incentive to complicate the risks assessment, to make it as detailed, as data-heavy and as data-obscured as possible, because that just delays doing anything about the product that may be causing harm," Cranor said.
"There are legitimate differences in scientific judgment. And then there’s contamination by people who have no interest in figuring out things correctly and are arguing for a political outcome," he added.
More focused assessments
The committee concluded that "a number of improvements are needed to streamline EPA’s risk-assessment process to ensure that risk assessments make better use of appropriate science and are more relevant to decision-making."
One key change, the scientists said, is that the EPA should alter how it designs its assessments so that they are “more closely tied to the questions” that policymakers want answered.
Under the current strategy, the EPA calculates the probability that a certain chemical is hurting people or wildlife. Instead, the committee said, the agency should address what options are available to reduce hazards or exposures and then figure out what information they can provide to help regulators analyze the merits of those options.
Lauren Zeise, a member of the National Research Council committee, said this upfront planning is critical to stopping risk reports from getting bogged down in details that may not even be helpful to policymakers.