The Evolution of the Assessment of Health and Environmental Risks by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has been at the forefront of human health and ecological risk assessment within the federal government since the 1970s. Over time, EPA’s risk assessment methodology has evolved considerably. In some respects, that methodology has become more “conservative,” e.g., through the evaluation of synergistic and cumulative risks and the focus on additional protection needed for sensitive populations like children. In other respects, EPA’s approach to the assessment of risks from environmental contaminants has become less “conservative,” e.g., by focusing on current and reasonably expected land use and exposures rather than all potential uses and exposures. Throughout this evolution, two common - and related - criticisms of EPA’s use of risk assessment in setting environmental policy and protecting against environmental exposures have been (i) a lack of transparency in how risks and actions to protect against those risks are determined, and (ii) a failure to communicate to the public the uncertainty attendant to EPA’s assessment of risks and the value of the risk reduction achieved in addressing them. The Agency has been criticized in many quarters for its failure to disclose adequately the numerous - and often highly conservative - assumptions upon which its risk assessments typically rest and its inadequate communication of the policy judgments that form the predicate for how much risk EPA considers “acceptable.” This session will address the basis and nature of these criticisms of EPA’s assessment and communication of human health risks associated with environmental contamination and how the Agency has responded to those criticisms.
Paper presented at the 1st International Symposium on Understanding Health Benefits and Risks: Empowering Patients and Citizens. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. May 29, 2009