Stinking IRIS

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single authoritative website you could go to find out whether a chemical was dangerous, and in what ways, and in what quantities? The good news is that the US government has just the tool: an online database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). The bad news is that IRIS is utterly broken, and the Bush administration seems intent on mangling it still further.

About 80,000 chemicals are currently listed under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and about 700 more enter commercial use each and every year. Of those, IRIS contains risk assessments for a grand total of - wait for it - about 480 chemicals. Of that pitifully small total, scientists say that around half of the IRIS assessments are already out of date and are all but useless.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be filling in the thousands of missing entries in the IRIS database, but in the past two years the agency has produced assessments for only 32 chemicals. Adding insult to injury, just four of those assessments were ultimately approved for inclusion in the IRIS system by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which has a de facto veto on the EPA’s assessments.

“The assessments disappeared into an abyss of elaborate, endless reviews, mostly behind closed doors,” said Rep. Brad Miller, chair of a House panel currently investigating the process. “The system is fundamentally broken and cries out for reform.” 

Of course, there’s no environmental regulatory system so badly broken that the Bush administration can’t mess it up even further. A program of IRIS reforms were announced in April - but instead of trying to streamline the process, officials introduced rules that delay assessments still further.

Under the new system, federal agencies like NASA and the Pentagon are given an extra 45 days to submit information about chemicals that are under review. Worse still, the agencies are allowed to demand that the chemical assessments be frozen altogether for up to 18 months while they complete internal data-gathering exercises.

The Bush administration insists the extra time is needed to make sure that chemicals aren’t listed on IRIS without a full scientific review. In practice, though, the new rules will stretch the IRIS assessment process for new chemicals to somewhere in the region of six years - meaning that by the time the assessments are published, they’ll be obsolete. Thanks to the White House’s pernicious reforms, another key environmental tool is slowly going up in smoke.