Science Wednesday: Continuously Strengthening our Science

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D.

It is rigorous, cutting edge science that allows EPA to protect human health and the environment. Every decision and action that EPA takes on behalf of the American people is based upon it. Without science, effective pursuit of the Agency’s mission would be impossible.

Scientific work at EPA takes on many forms—tools, assessments, research, analysis, and monitoring are just a few. All of this work is continuously evolving to ensure we are always using the best science and latest insights. Yesterday, the Agency announced plans to make one of its most widely used science-based tools, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), even stronger.

IRIS provides health profiles of over 500 chemicals and their potential impacts on human health. The system is publicly available and used by state and local governments, environmental specialists, healthcare professionals and international institutions to characterize the potential health effects of contaminant exposure.

In 2009, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made significant changes to the IRIS process that vastly improved the timeliness of assessments. Since then, we’ve cut the average timeframe for completing assessments down from three plus years to 23 months and significantly reduced the backlog of assessments. In just two years, the staff dedicated to IRIS as well as funding for the program have increased by 25% and 50% respectively.

The changes announced yesterday focus on three areas of the IRIS program: accessibility of science, transparency of scientific rationale, and focused independent review. All new IRIS assessment documents will be shorter, clearer, and include more visuals and concise explanations of the rationale used to develop assessments and weigh scientific evidence. EPA will also publicly post references for all relevant studies and is working to set up a dedicated advisory committee that will focus on the quality, transparency and scientific rigor of IRIS assessments.

It is the responsibility of scientists to constantly seek out new information and insights from independent sources. Evaluating and incorporating these perspectives ensures that we always use the best science to most effectively pursue our mission. In this spirit, many of the new changes respond directly to suggestions from the National Academy of Science, a leading institution for independent scientific review.

The continuous improvement of IRIS reflects the natural evolution that accompanies all rigorous scientific work. Our continued ability to be agile—to evolve and incorporate new scientific insights—will be critical to pursuing our mission and protecting the American people.

About the author: Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D. is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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