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Scientists say EPA must do more to protect human health


Recent news suggests that the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t been doing much protecting of the earth (as evidenced by this this and this). In fact, the federal agency has successfully exploited the land and its resources while simultaneously failing to regulate toxic chemicals and pollution while also letting industry lobbyists pretty much make their own rules in some instances. Way to fail, guys.

But the EPA wants to improve—really, it does. It’s poor rep of late is more due to the administration it’s overseen by than it’s own failures. In fact, once Bush took office, some EPA employees quit in protest of the administration’s environmental policies.

There’s been much banter about how to overhaul the flailing agency, and now experts from the National Academy of Sciences are throwing their two cents in. The panel released a report today detailing how the EPA could improve its risk assessment strategies to better regulate toxic chemicals and pollution that effect human health. The report comes after 18 month investigation (plus a whole year to compile the report itself) into the agency’s current processes, and it came at the request of the EPA itself.

Currently, before it decides whether or not to regulate toxins or pollutants like perchlorate, dioxins, or arsenic, the EPA conducts “risk assessments,” analyses of various scientific data pertaining to the substance in question. The problem is that the assessments often take years, even decades—an unnecessarily long time period (leading to the criticism that the EPA is afflicted with “paralysis by analysis”). Additionally, industry lobbyists’ whispering in EPA officials’ ears affects their judgement of whether or not a chemical is dangerous, a corrupt practice that oftentimes comes at the cost of protecting human health.

From Scientific American:

“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.

Judging by how lax regulations on toxic chemicals are (if they’re regulated at all, that is), it’s clear that the system just isn’t working. Luckily, the panel experts have some suggestions to streamline the process. Check out some highlights from the pearls of wisdom scientists laid on the EPA.

From SciAm:

The scientists proposed bringing regulators, scientists and stakeholders together before the assessment begins to set a deadline and determine what key questions need to be addressed. They warned, however, that they are “mindful of concerns about political interference in the process” and that it is imperative that risk assessments “not be inappropriately influenced” by regulators and others.

 

The scientists told the EPA to put more emphasis on non-cancer effects of contaminants, and to overhaul how it determines what dose of a chemical is considered safe. The agency should examine each chemical’s effects on human health, such as how it contributes to a disease, and not assume there is a minimum exposure, or threshold, for causing effects, the committee said.

To read the rest of the committee’s recommendations, download the full report here. But make sure you have some time on your hands—it’s 382 pages long.

So scientists have spit some knowledge, but whether the EPA will actually implement reforms remains to be seen. A lot depends on agency overhaul from the next administration—an overhaul that’s already set to be a struggle. Let’s hope that Obama’s pick for EPA administrator (rumored to be New Jersey’s Lisa Jackson) has the chops to seriously reform the bad-boy agency.