Writing Down IRIS

By Kacee Deener IRIS

As a scientist now working in science communications, I’m constantly surprised by the writing process.  You put something down on paper, revise it a few times, and then make tweaks here and there until you’re satisfied.  Then you look at it again later, and you make a few more changes.

Turns out lots of things in life are like that—including science programs.  In May 2009, EPA announced a new Integrated Risk Information System – or IRIS – assessment development process.

IRIS is an important program because it provides information on the health effects caused by exposure to chemicals in the environment.  People use IRIS, along with other science information, to inform decisions that protect public health across the U.S.

The new 2009 process was good for the IRIS Program.  But – as I’ve learned with writing – a few tweaks can make something even better.  Since 2009, we’ve learned a lot.  We’ve also received recommendations from the National Research Council (NRC) about improving IRIS assessments and about planning and scoping and stakeholder engagement in risk assessment.  So we’re making some common sense changes that will help us produce more high quality assessments in a timely and transparent manner.

In a nutshell, here’s what we are doing

  • Before beginning an assessment, we will meet with EPA’s regulatory programs – the folks who make decisions that help protect public health – to make sure we understand the big picture of why they need an assessment.
  • We will then hold a public meeting to discuss the plan for the assessment (so we better understand who needs it and why) and gather input about some technical aspects of developing the assessment (for example, are we concerned about people being exposed by breathing the chemical, ingesting it, or both?).
  • Next we will release a literature search for the chemical, evidence tables that summarize the critical scientific studies, and exposure-response figures that graphically depict the responses at different levels of exposure for each study in the evidence table. These materials highlight our thought process for determining which studies are most important for the assessment, help make sure we didn’t miss any important research, and help identify any potential scientific controversies early on.
  • We’re also using “stopping rules” so IRIS assessments are not delayed by ongoing research or scientific debate after certain points of the process have passed.
  • Finally, we’ve strengthened our practices for peer review and conflict of interest.

And this isn’t a complete list – you can read about all of the enhancements on our website.

These changes to IRIS are practical, common-sense improvements that emphasize scientific rigor and transparency.  They will also be good for our stakeholders, so like a well written story, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Like a committed science writer, we’ll always be revising whenever improvements are needed, but take a minute to check out the latest edition.  I think you’ll like the improvements.

About the Author: Kacee Deener is the Communications Director in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, home of the IRIS Program.  She joined EPA 12 years ago and has a Masters degree in Public Health.