Industry research and analysis on health and safety risks of their products is frequently subject to public criticism as inevitably biased. On the other hand, similar activity by government agencies is also often criticized as biased by the use of conservative assumptions and data selection and the intrusion of precautionary sentiment.
As a contradiction, it is sometimes argued that industry should be required to develop and submit data on health and safety to government agencies so that companies will bear most of the burden of assessing health and safety of their products (often referred to as “the polluter pays”). This position is frequently taken in arguing for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, and is evident to some extent in the recently re-introduced Safe Chemicals Act bill in the U.S. Senate.
That bill would require companies to submit health and safety data for chemicals used in their products, but then the Environmental Protection Agency would be responsible for conducting any risk assessment. However, given the number of chemicals potentially subject to such legislation, it is unlikely that EPA could muster the funding and expertise to carry out such a function, and its assessments would likely be subject to criticism for bias.
Further complicating such matters are the requirements of the Information Quality Act for objectivity, transparency, and peer review of “influential” and “highly influential” scientific information. While these requirements are beneficial, they inevitably result in a slower process and create the potential for judicial review once the government disseminates risk information and denies a petition for correction.
The solution might well lie in evaluation of the data by expert panels that are neither government- nor industry-sponsored, but are a hybrid established through a government-industry partnership and that conduct their proceedings through well-defined procedures that provide transparency, ample opportunities for comment, and procedural assurance against bias.
What would constitute an ideal model for such an expert panel? A number of existing models are available for examination in order to help formulate such an ideal model. Not all of them fit the mold of a government-industry partnership, though all claim to use unbiased experts. Nevertheless, it is useful to examine their advantages and shortcomings and to begin a public dialogue on the matter. We are unaware of any previous effort to do this.
The primary existing model for risk assessment appears to be the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (www.cir-safety.org), which is funded by the cosmetic industry but is sponsored and overseen by FDA and consumer groups as well as industry. On the research side, there are more models, with a primary one being the Health Effects Institute, which conducts air pollution research with joint funding from EPA and industry. Other examples of assessment expert panels could include the American Council of Governmental Industry Hygienists (“ACGIH”), committees established by the National Academies and the National Research Council, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (“IARC,” a specialized entity of the World Health Organization) and the numerous scientific advisory committees established by U.S. federal agencies under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
A project to examine such an approach to health and safety research and risk assessment could be conducted by Federal Focus through a public forum on its website, www.fedfocus.org. Federal Focus has a long history of involvement with risk assessment issues stretching back to its discussion and proposal of an Executive order to harmonize federal risk assessment policy and procedures, publication of Toward Common Measures and a draft risk assessment Executive order in 1991, and the convening of numerous public forums to discuss such an action. Federal Focus has also convened expert panels to examine the use of epidemiology in risk assessment and to evaluate the state of the science on asserted environmental endocrine effects, and developed a draft Executive order on agricultural biotechnology products.
The project would include the following steps:
1. Preparation of a Federal Focus white paper on the subject.
2. Setting up of the digital forum on the Federal Focus website.
3. Publicizing initiation of the project.
4. Administering the forum.
5. Preparing a report synthesizing the issues and comments from the forum and developing a proposal based on all input.
6. Publicizing the report and proposal.