Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Panel Seeks Changes in E.P.A. Reviews

NY Times

December 4, 2008


The Environmental Protection Agency must revise its approach to assessing environmental health hazards and other risks, because current practices hinder useful and timely regulation, an expert panel of The National Research Council is reporting.

The council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said the agency should scrap some of the assumptions on which its decisions have been based, reduce its focus on individual chemicals and other hazards to consider how they act in combination. And it should accept that uncertainty is always going to be an issue and aim to providepractical information to policy-makers as quickly as possible.

The report, which the panel produced at the behest of the E.P.A., is being made public Wednesday and is online at

Risk assessment — determining whether something is a hazard and, if so, how great and to whom — is a crucial step in devising appropriate environmental regulations and other decisions, the panel said, and the field is advancing as testing systems and other technology advance.

But assessing environmental risks is highly complex and full of uncertainty, it continued, and at the E.P.A. “the regulatory risk assessment process is bogged down,” with some assessments taking a decade or more. For example, the report cited an assessment of trichloroethylene, a commonly used solvent, that has been under way since the 1980s and is not expected before 2010.

The environmental agency’s conclusions about risk are usually crucial in establishing regulatory goals. As a result, they are often subject to intense political or economic pressure. When the Bush administration proposed changes it said would streamline risk-assessment procedures, critics called the proposal an attempt to weaken environmental regulation. In a 2007 report, the academy dismissed the proposal as “fundamentally flawed” and the administration withdrew it.

Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said the new report focused on the use of “defaults,” assumptions that are made about one factor or another in the face of uncertainty.

“Many of them are founded on good science, but there are some hidden assumptions,” he said. “Right now when we don’t have information on a pollutant we treat it as if there’s no risk. That’s a so-called hidden default.”

He added, “We really need to address these gaps.”

Another issue the report cited was the effect of cumulative exposures to a variety of environmental hazards. Usually these hazards are studied one by one. But Dr. Burke said, “You have to consider not just the one compound but you have to ask broadly, because people are exposed to many, many thousands of substances.” Even drinking water is “a rich mixture,” he added.

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said it would have no comment on the report until members had had time to read it.

Joel Tickner, a professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies chemicals in the environment, said that while he had not seen the report, its focus on speeding environmental review and consideration of cumulative effects was overdue.

“We put a lot of effort into finding more complex ways to characterize the problems while we don’t put nearly as much resources into studying solutions,” he said. He too cited trichloroethylene. “Given that we know trichloroethylene is a neurotoxin and a carcinogen and that there are very good alternatives it makes no sense to put so much resources into studying it.”

He said that by focusing on safer alternatives for processes like degreasing, industries in Massachusetts had reduced their use of the compound by 90 percent.

“But as long as we are uncertain we assume there is no problem,” he said. “That provides almost an incentive to having scientific uncertainty.”

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