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June 6, 2023

GAO’s Priority Open Recommendations for EPA Include Recommendations Regarding the IRIS Program

Lynn L. Bergeson Carla N. Hutton

On May 16, 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released publicly a report on its priority open recommendations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). GAO’s priority recommendations include three in the area of “assessing and controlling toxic chemicals.” According to GAO, EPA’s ability to protect effectively public health and the environment depends on credible and timely assessments of the risks posed by toxic chemicals, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). GAO states that implementing the following three priority recommendations in this area, such as by establishing an ongoing process to assess the resources required to complete successfully Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) chemical assessments, would improve EPA’s ability to prepare and issue the assessments:

  • To develop the timely chemical risk information that EPA needs to conduct its mission effectively, the EPA Administrator should require the Office of Research and Development (ORD) to reevaluate its draft proposed changes to the IRIS assessment process in light of the issues raised in the report and ensure that any revised process periodically assesses the level of resources that should be dedicated to this significant program to meet user needs and maintain a viable IRIS database. According to GAO, as of February 2023, officials from ORD’s Chemical and Pollutant Assessment Division (CPAD) had conducted an analysis of the resources needed to produce chemical assessments, including IRIS assessments and Provisional Peer-Reviewed Toxicity Values. The analysis concluded by noting that CPAD is under-resourced and expects to experience a continued increase in its workload in coming years, thereby worsening the gap between what EPA offices need and what CPAD is able to produce. GAO states that CPAD’s analysis did not identify specific metrics for assessing the effectiveness of EPA’s staff recruitment and retention strategies or whether current resource allocations are helping CPAD meet the targets established in various EPA strategic action plans. GAO will keep the recommendation open until CPAD updates its analysis to include more specific metrics, which will help EPA determine the effectiveness of its recruitment and retention strategies.
  • To ensure better the credibility of IRIS assessments by enhancing their timeliness and certainty, the EPA Administrator should require ORD to establish a written policy that clearly describes the applicability of the timeframes for each type of IRIS assessment and ensures that the timeframes are realistic and provide greater predictability to stakeholders. According to GAO, as of March 2023, EPA officials were considering ways to provide additional documentation to help stakeholders better understand the timeframes for completing IRIS assessments. GAO “encourage[s] EPA to provide its program offices with documentation of how long it takes to complete each of these different types of assessments to reduce uncertainty for stakeholders with significant interests in IRIS assessments.”
  • The EPA Administrator should include in ORD’s strategic plan (or subsidiary strategic plans) identification of EPA’s universe of chemical assessment needs; how the IRIS program is being resourced to meet user needs; and specific implementation steps that indicate how IRIS will achieve the plan’s objectives, such as specific metrics to define progress in meeting user needs. GAO states that it will keep this recommendation open until CPAD updates its analysis to include such specific metrics and more information is available for GAO to determine the extent to which EPA management has used CPAD’s analysis to balance its workload with available resources. This would ensure EPA and CPAD can better identify and meet user needs.