EPW Ranking Member Carper and House Science, Space, and Technology Chairwoman Johnson Call for Improvements to EPA’s Chemical Health Assessments

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, released a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report found that political obstruction within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration has significantly impeded the agency’s ability to efficiently produce and publically release Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessments.

The new report, “Chemical Assessments: Annual EPA Survey Inconsistent with Leading Practices in Program Management,” was initially requested last year by Senator Carper and Chairwoman Johnson as part of their ongoing oversight efforts of EPA’s IRIS program.

The report demonstrates that, under the leadership of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the IRIS program suffered from political interference. GAO found that the survey process instituted in 2018 was implemented and repeated with no analysis of whether it had improved IRIS’s efficiency, transparency, or productivity. Furthermore, GAO noted that since December 2018, no chemical assessments have progressed through the IRIS process. Additionally, seven assessments were discontinued and eight were suspended.

“Throughout the past four years, political officials in the Trump Administration did everything possible to starve EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System program of resources,” Senator Carper said. “They silenced the experts and buried ‘inconvenient‘ science that highlighted unsafe chemicals. I am confident that the Biden Administration will allow science to be its guide. Additionally, I encourage the incoming leadership at EPA to heed the recommendations of this report and make the other changes needed to restore confidence in EPA’s health assessments, policies, and rules to protect human health and the environment.”

“The IRIS program is the gold standard for chemical toxicity assessments around the world, but the Trump Administration has spent the past four years interfering with the program’s ability to fulfill its mandate,” Chairwoman Johnson said. “Today’s GAO report demonstrates yet again the extent to which the outgoing EPA leadership has sought to undermine IRIS by imposing ill-conceived and opaque processes, obstructing the progression of chemical assessments, and failing to provide the program with political support. EPA must take certain essential actions–such as eliminating the flawed annual survey process criticized by GAO and reviewing the suspensions and discontinuations of assessments such as formaldehyde since 2018–to restore IRIS’s ability to properly support the Agency’s mission. Our Committees will maintain an assertive oversight posture during the 117th Congress to ensure that IRIS is quickly revitalized and restored to its vital role within EPA’s scientific framework.”

Senator Carper and Chairwoman Johnson also recommend EPA take the following actions: 

  • Eliminate the survey process instituted and continued under former Administrator Pruitt and Administrator Wheeler and return to a collaborative process that provides EPA career scientists the authority to consider the priorities of program offices, regional offices, and offices with the particular need for IRIS chemical assessments when deciding which assessments to undertake, removes arbitrary limits on IRIS workflow, and ensures EPA authority to direct the review and publication of assessments is restored and enhanced. 
  • Take action to address concerns identified by GAO in their High-Risk Lists and endeavor to be removed from the 2022 High-Risk List.
  • Review the assessments that have been suspended and discontinued since December 2018, such as formaldehyde, and determine the best course to get high-priority assessments back on track.
  • Complete the implementation of the EPA Office of Research and Development’s systematic review by finalizing the Staff Handbook currently out for public comment.
  • Set a strong tone at the top by asserting the Administrator’s commitment to getting IRIS back on its path to address recommendations from GAO and the National Academies.
  • Increase transparency to the public regarding the progress of assessments from selection of chemicals, through internal review steps, to the publication of final products. 
  • Quickly rescind rules and other policies that restrict the use of the best available science in the preparation of IRIS and other assessments.