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Press Releases :: June 12, 2008

Communities Left Vulnerable to Toxic Chemicals, Witnesses Tell Subcommittee

(Washington, DC) – The House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight heard testimony today on the human impact when the scientific integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) public chemical database, IRIS, is compromised.  The Subcommittee is also looking into the White House’s efforts to slow the completion and release of chemical assessments in IRIS. 

“When state and local authorities get poor information, or no information, from IRIS regarding the health hazards of a particular pollutant, their response to pollution in a community is likely to be confused and confusing,” Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). 

The Subcommittee is examining whether the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) continued efforts to delay assessments of the health risks posed by toxic chemicals is contributing to illness and premature death for thousands of Americans. 

"The White House has effectively blocked the EPA from posting new health assessments of hazardous chemicals by prolonging the assessments because of inevitable uncertainties about the interaction of chemicals and human health,” said Miller.  

IRIS, the Integrated Risk Information System, is where the EPA maintains assessments of the health-impact of chemicals.  Federal agencies, state and local authorities, private companies, and individuals rely on IRIS to plan a response when chemicals are found in air, water, or soil.  IRIS offers guidance on what chemicals are toxic, and at what levels.  The IRIS website gets 20,000 hits per year. 

The hearing today illustrated the connection between the experiences of individuals and communities with trichloroethylene (TCE) pollution issues and the IRIS database.  Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Master Sergeant, testified about watching his young daughter suffer and succumb to leukemia; she was conceived while the family was stationed at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, which had very high levels of TCE in its drinking water.  Other experts illustrated how state and local governments rely on IRIS when they try to decide what to do when chemical pollution is identified. 

TCE has been widely used since the 1920s as a degreaser.  Discovery of its toxic properties eliminated its use as an analgesic in the 1930s and by the 1970s evidence in animal experiments indicated it might cause cancer.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that EPA will not complete their TCE assessment until 2010—twenty one years after the original start date.  Yesterday Chairman Miller sent a letter to the White House asking for all documents related to the long-delayed assessment of TCE.  

“Completion of an IRIS assessment is just the first step in the process protecting people from dangerous exposures to toxic chemicals,” said Miller.  “People will have been exposed to a known toxic substance for decades, for a generation, while the government engages in study after study.  Have we become so obsessed with getting the science right that we have lost sight of our real goal – protecting public health? Or is getting the science right a pretext for obstruction?”

A backlog of assessments has been made worse by a new review process that the EPA and OMB revealed on April 10, 2008.  The GAO testified at the first hearing on IRIS last month that the new process provides for even more secrecy and delay, with more opportunity for polluters to weigh on the draft assessment without public input or knowledge.   

For more information, please see the Committee’s website.

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