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EPA's IRIS: A Database with Blind Spots

Outdated & Incomplete Database Hampers Protection Efforts

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) is considered by many to be the gold standard database for toxicological information and human health effects data, used by risk assessors around the world. Information on chemicals in the database carries the imprimatur of EPA, and is thus considered authoritative. Accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, IRIS profiles of individual chemicals are a cornerstone for a host of activity in the public and private sector, including regulation decisions by government, safety approaches by industry, and evidence offered in litigation. 

Unfortunately, IRIS is woefully incomplete. It is riddled with disturbing gaps in the data in its chemical profiles, and it is missing profiles for many dangerous chemicals altogether. In June 2009, a white paper from the Center for Progressive Reform, The IRIS Information Roadblock: How Gaps in EPA’s Main Toxicological Database Weaken Environmental Protection, warned that the database was “outdated, incomplete, and ultimately ineffective.” A 2010 CPR white paper mapped out priorities for EPA in bringing the database up to date.

Since then, EPA has struggled to improve the program, largely because high-level managers have focused on maximizing “stakeholder engagement,” as opposed to instituting reforms that might speed up the development of new chemical risk assessments. The chemical industry has far more resources than the public interest community and a more direct interest in the outcome of any individual risk assessment document. Thus additional “stakeholder engagement” (typically in the form of multi-day meetings where scientific details are discussed in terms only understood by well-compensated scientists) mostly benefits the potentially regulated industry.

CPR President Rena Steinzor’s 2014 testimony at a joint hearing of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittees on Oversight and the Environment lays bare the problems faced by the IRIS program.

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© Center for Progressive Reform, 2013