Center for Progressive Reform

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Outdated & Incomplete Database Hampers Protection Efforts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Roadblock: How Gaps in EPA’s Main Toxicological Database Weaken Environmental Protection, warned that the database was “outdated, incomplete, and ultimately ineffective.”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.

In 2011, CPR Member Scholars responded to industry efforts to further bog down the IRIS process, writing to the White House Office of Management and Budget to oppose a proposal by the chemical industry's trade association for OMB to take an even greater role in IRIS assessments, thus slowing down the process and bending it further away from the underlying science at work in IRIS's risk assessment. In addition, CPR President Rena Steinzor testified before a congressional committee, again opposing industry-backed efforts to impede the IRIS assessment process. 

EPA’s efforts to fill IRIS’s data gaps were largely stymied during the Bush Administration, and not by accident. The Administration imposed “reforms” designed to subject EPA’s scientists – the ones who should be making final decisions on the safety of chemicals – to a host of political pressures from government agencies with neither scientific expertise nor an interest in protecting the environment. Most notably, the Department of Defense, the nation’s largest toxic polluter, had an opportunity to help water down EPA’s scientific findings.

The Obama Administration recognized the problem, but its May 2009 revisions to the IRIS process did left key issues unaddressed, according to the CPR report’s authors, Member Scholars Rena Steinzor and Wendy Wagner and Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz. Specifically, the report called on EPA to abandon the Bush-era interagency review process for IRIS listings, a process designed to compromise IRIS’s scientific integrity. In addition, the report called on EPA to establish priorities from among the many chemicals not yet listed in IRIS, and to commitg to completing IRIS profiles on them within reasonable periods of time.

The Center for Progressive Reform

455 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #150-513
Washington, DC 20001

© Center for Progressive Reform, 2013