[Pharmwaste] Panel Seeks Changes in E.P.A. Reviews

DeBiasi,Deborah dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Thu Dec 4 09:47:21 EST 2008

This has been long overdue....


December 4, 2008

Panel Seeks Changes in E.P.A. Reviews 

The Environmental Protection Agency must revise its approach to
assessing environmental health hazards and other risks, because current
practices hinder useful and timely regulation, an expert panel of The
National Research Council says.

The council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said
the agency should scrap some of the assumptions on which its decisions
have been based and reduce its focus on individual chemicals and other
hazards to consider how they act in combination. It should also accept
that uncertainty was always an issue and seek to provide practical
information to policy makers as quickly as possible.

The report, which the panel produced at the behest of the E.P.A., was
made public Wednesday and is online at www.nas.edu.

Determining whether something is a hazard and, if so, how great and to
whom is a crucial step in devising appropriate environmental
regulations, the panel said, and the field is advancing as testing
systems and other technology advance. 

But assessing environmental risks is highly complex and full of
uncertainty, it continued, and at the E.P.A., "the regulatory
risk-assessment process is bogged down," with some assessments taking a
decade or more. For example, the report cited an assessment of
trichloroethylene, a commonly used solvent, that has been under way
since the 1980s and is not expected before 2010. 

The environmental agency's conclusions about risk are usually crucial in
establishing regulatory goals. As a result, they are often subject to
intense political or economic pressure. When the Bush administration
proposed changes that it said would streamline risk-assessment
procedures, critics called the proposal an effort to weaken
environmental regulation. In a 2007 report, the academy dismissed the
proposal as "fundamentally flawed," and it was withdrawn.

Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School of Public
Health at Johns Hopkins University, said the new report focused on the
use of "defaults," assumptions that are made about one factor or another
in the face of uncertainty.

"Many of them are founded on good science," he said, "but there are some
hidden assumptions. Right now, when we don't have information on a
pollutant, we treat it as if there's no risk. That's a so-called hidden

Dr. Burke added, "We really need to address these gaps."

Another issue the report cited was the effect of cumulative exposures to
a variety of environmental hazards. Usually these hazards are studied
one by one. But Dr. Burke said, "You have to consider not just the one
compound but you have to ask broadly, because people are exposed to
many, many thousands of substances." 

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said it would have no
comment on the report until members had had time to read it.

Joel Tickner, a professor of environmental health at the University of
Massachusetts at Lowell who studies chemicals in the environment, said
that while he had not seen the report, its focus on speeding
environmental review and consideration of cumulative effects was

"We put a lot of effort into finding more complex ways to characterize
the problems while we don't put nearly as much resources into studying
solutions," Professor Tickner said. 

He, too, cited trichloroethylene, saying, "Given that we know
trichloroethylene is a neurotoxin and a carcinogen and that there are
very good alternatives, it makes no sense to put so much resources into
studying it." 

Professor Tickner said that by focusing on safer alternatives for
processes like degreasing, industries in Massachusetts had reduced their
use of the compound by 90 percent. 

"But as long as we are uncertain, we assume there is no problem," he
said. "That provides almost an incentive to having scientific

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Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email:   dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
WEB site address:  www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail:          P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA  23218 (NEW!)
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