The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is owning up to problems with its current approach to risk evaluations — as exemplified in the outcry over its 2020 asbestos review — and pledging to base future evaluations on “the best scientific data.”

In a Feb. 16 release, the agency said it will revamp the scientific protocols underpinning its risk evaluations for hazardous products — such as asbestos — under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This change of heart was prompted by several factors: a scathing review of those protocols by a federal advisory board; a Jan. 27 executive memo from President Joe Biden intended to restore public confidence in federal research; and the disastrous reception to the agency’s 2020 risk evaluation of chrysotile asbestos.

Agency officials noted that they are shelving the current Application of Systematic Review in TSCA Risk Evaluations adopted in 2018 and formulating a new one that they hope to publish later this year.

EPA expects to publish and take public comment on a TSCA systematic review protocol that will adopt many of the recommendations in the Academies’ report later this year.

‘Lacking Objectivity’

The current model employed by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) in its risk evaluations was raked over the coals by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in a recent assessment. The federal advisory board found the current model “to be lacking objectivity at each step, from not using a defined approach to documenting how the problem formulation and protocol are developed.”

The National Academies noted that the current model employed by OPPT does not draw on existing methods of risk evaluation employed by other federal agencies, the World Health Organization, or European agencies.

Instead, OPPT developed a new approach that applied systematic review to aspects of an evaluation that don’t generally get a systematic review, such as the hazard assessment, the exposure assessment, and data on various physical and chemical properties.

Adopting IRIS

The Academies’ assessment ends by encouraging the agency to adopt a TSCA systematic review protocol that incorporates elements of the Integrated Risk Information System Program, a conclusion that the agency largely agreed with.

“EPA is not using, and will not again use, the systematic review approach that was reviewed by the Academies. The Application of Systematic Review document released in 2018 represented EPA’s practices at that time. ... EPA expects to publish and take public comment on a TSCA systematic review protocol that will adopt many of the recommendations in the Academies’ report later this year.”

The agency’s release also cited President Biden’s Jan. 27 memo ordering all federal agencies “to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data” as an impetus for the course correction.

Unknown Impact on Second Report

What this policy change means for a forthcoming asbestos review, which will focus on legacy uses of all forms of asbestos, is unclear.

While the EPA is already working on this risk assessment — as indicated in a Feb. 3 webinar where the agency announced that it will be releasing a draft evaluation on the report’s scope sometime this summer — whether it’s already reached a stage that would be affected by this decision is unclear.

Agency officials did not respond to questions on this matter as of press time Jan. 17.

Widespread Criticism

The 2018 review model was employed in the agency’s widely criticized risk evaluation of chrysotile asbestos. That report focused exclusively on chrysotile because it is the only form of asbestos still imported into the U.S. and used in modern products.

Criticism over the agency’s handling of the report came from many corners, including a federal district judge who faulted the EPA’s “failure to adequately gather all reasonably available information regarding the risk of exposure to asbestos,” a finding underscored by the agency’s own Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals.

The agency’s decision to rework the review model was applauded by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that was highly critical of the agency’s policies under former President Donald Trump. “Today’s announcement shows that the EPA is again going to review chemicals to protect public health, not make things easier for polluters,” EWG’s Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh stated in a Feb. 16 release.

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