Experts Agree That White House Proposal on Risk Assessment Is Deeply Flawed and Should Be Withdrawn

Jan. 11, 2007

Experts Agree That White House Proposal on Risk Assessment Is Deeply Flawed and Should Be Withdrawn

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Research Council (NRC) has rightly declared that a White House proposal to create a one-size-fits-all approach to agency assessments of risks is unscientific and should be withdrawn, Public Citizen said today.

In its review published today of the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) “Proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin,” the NRC’s panel of experts emphasized “the likely drain on agency resources, the extended time necessary to complete risk assessments that are undertaken, and the highly likely disruptive effect on many agencies,” echoing problems raised by public interest groups, including written comments submitted jointly by Public Citizen and OMB Watch last August.

“The NRC panel of experts is on target in identifying the very problems we have been raising – that these guidelines, being pushed by major corporations, would be a straightjacket on agencies, limiting their ability to issue safety standards and protect the public,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.

Added Robert Shull, Public Citizen’s deputy director for auto safety and regulatory policy, “The experts saw through OMB’s flawed arguments and have agreed with us that this bulletin should be junked altogether. Imposing make-work on agencies does not advance their missions.”

Federal health and safety agencies prepare risk assessments to develop the best assumptions about hazards when there is a need for action in a situation with incomplete information. Agency experts apply their scientific judgment to the weight of the available scientific evidence to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown and provide estimates of the risk the public faces, such as the risk of cancer from exposure to a hazardous waste site or the potential that a bridge or large structure could collapse.

Currently, agencies follow general, basic principles for risk assessment suggested over the years by other expert panels, while developing their own technical guidelines for conducting risk assessments based on the nature of the risk being studied. NASA risk assessments for getting space shuttles into space and back to earth safely, for example, are quite different from assessments of the fatality risk from exposure to a hazardous waste site.

In January 2006, OMB published a proposed set of guidelines to govern all risk assessments. The proposal outlined one-size-fits-all technical standards for all federal agencies to use when conducting risk assessments as well as other scientific documents that are not generally considered “risk assessments.” The OMB guidelines would apply to risk assessments conducted in preparation for issuing or revising health, safety and environmental rules, as well as important scientific investigations such as the National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens,” widely considered the gold standard for identifying substances that are carcinogenic.

OMB submitted the proposal to the public for comment and to the National Research Council for peer review. The report released today is the result of the council’s review.

“This proposed bulletin is yet another salvo in the Bush administration’s war on science and was the realization of decades of lobbying by the tobacco industry, chemical manufacturers and other corporate interests,” Shull said. “To avoid regulation of their products, they routinely attack the scientific assessments used to support regulation. This expert report couldn’t come at a better time.”

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