Wednesday, April 30, 2008
(04-30) 04:00 PDT Washington - --
A congressional watchdog agency has found that White House officials repeatedly intervened in the government's scientific process for assessing the health risks of toxic chemicals, prompting Sen. Barbara Boxer to threaten giving Congress control of the program.
The Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday that the White House's budget office, the Pentagon and other agencies had delayed or blocked efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to list chemicals as carcinogens by requesting more research or more time to review the risks.
Boxer, D-Calif., who is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and requested the report, called the findings scandalous. If EPA does not speed up its assessments of toxic chemicals, she warned that Congress might step in and start banning substances that threaten the public health.
"If we don't see that happen, colleagues of mine are going to take matters into their own hands," Boxer said.
A top EPA official, who was grilled at a hearing before Boxer's committee Tuesday, responded that it was helpful to have more input from the White House and other agencies.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, it's EPA's decision," said James Gulliford, EPA's assistant administrator for pesticides, prevention and toxic substances.
GAO officials also faulted the administration for setting new rules that keep secret any involvement by the White House or a federal agency in a decision about the risks of a chemical.
"In the risk assessment program, you don't want anyone but the scientists involved," John Stephenson, GAO's chief investigator for environmental programs, told lawmakers.
The issue involves major changes the administration has made to an EPA program called "IRIS" - the Integrated Risk Information System - which allows the agency to determine safe levels of exposure to chemicals to protect the public health. The program has been used to set limits on arsenic in drinking water and benzene in the air, and foreign nations and states like California often use the data for their regulations.
Influencing risk assessment
Since President Bush took office in 2001, the White House has sought to take more control of a process that has long been led by EPA scientists, the report found. The Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, the Energy Department and even NASA have taken steps to influence risk assessments that could affect those agencies or hurt U.S. industries, the report said.
For example, the EPA started a risk assessment of naphthalene, a chemical used in jet fuel, in 2002, and agency scientists have been moving toward listing it as a likely human carcinogen. But many military sites are contaminated with naphthalene, which could lead to major cleanup costs for the Pentagon. So, White House budget officials slowed the process, repeatedly requesting more analysis. Six years later, the risk assessment is back at the drafting stage.
"The series of delays has limited EPA's ability to conduct its mission," the GAO report concluded.
The study also found irregularities in the agency's risk assessment of formaldehyde, a colorless gas used in plywood and many other household products, which the World Health Organization has listed as a known human carcinogen but EPA classifies only as a probable carcinogen.
In 2004, the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation decided to bypass the risk analysis of its own scientists and use data by an industry-funded group when it issued new rules for formaldehyde - even though EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment identified a number of problems with the group's data. A federal appellate court struck down the rules last year.
"It was fairly unprecedented," testified Lynn Goldman, who was assistant EPA administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances during the Clinton administration and is now an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Only 4 approved
Stephenson, the GAO investigator, told lawmakers the risk assessments had slowed to a crawl because of the prolonged inter-agency review. Out of 32 draft risk assessments prepared by the EPA over the last two years, only four were approved.
The program, Stephenson said, "is at serious risk of becoming obsolete."
Public health advocates warned that the results are years-long delays in regulating harmful chemicals that scientists have linked to rising cancer rates in some groups.
Dr. Linda Giudice, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCSF, pointed to the growing evidence that a child exposed to chemicals in the womb is not only at higher risk of birth defects and learning disabilities, but also at risk of lower fertility, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as an adult.
Giudice noted that scientists are just now learning of the effects of some chemicals, such as bisphenol A, a compound found in baby bottles and other products. Manufacturers of BPA insist it is safe, but it's been linked to breast and prostate cancer, early puberty in females and behavior disorders in laboratory animals.
"There are many chemicals where we have no scientific data," Giudice said. "The absence of scientific data does not mean the chemical is safe."
Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to ban children's products with BPA, and California lawmakers are considering a similar bill. San Francisco was the first jurisdiction in the world to outlaw BPA in kids' products, but it repealed the ban in 2007 after a court fight with plastics manufacturers.
Boxer said the United States should consider shifting to the European Union's new system, known as REACH, which requires all manufacturers seeking to sell their chemicals in Europe to register and prove the chemical will not hurt human health or the environment. She said the program "puts the burden on the chemical industry, where it should be, to show that their chemicals are safe."
E-mail Zachary Coile at email@example.com.