OMB Puts Children's Health at Risk with Data Quality Act

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Published  04/04/2005 06:35 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new guidelines for assessing cancer risk March 29 after years of deliberation. These guidelines officially recognize for the first time that children are particularly vulnerable to certain cancer-causing chemicals. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), while reviewing the guidelines, inserted two requirements, including that any EPA cancer evaluation meet the standards of the Data Quality Act (DQA), which will have the effect of putting more children at risk.

These guidelines determine how EPA regulates cancer-causing chemicals. The agency released the draft policy for these guidelines two years ago, March 2003. Supplemental guidelines for assessing cancer risks to children were included in the draft. The EPA's Scientific Advisory Board reviewed the draft and recommended finalizing the guidelines as written. Then the guidelines were sent to OMB for review.

EPA's guidelines estimate that children under two years of age are 10 times more likely to get cancer from certain chemicals than adults who are similarly exposed. Many would consider this vulnerability a cause to use the precautionary principle and strictly regulate any substances for which even partial evidence shows children at risk. However, OMB elected to require that the data meet rigorous standards established under the DQA before the agency can act to protect children.

The DQA has been accused of being a wolf in sheep's clothing, an industry tool for delaying and derailing regulatory protections posing as a good-government policy. Most agencies, including EPA, were cautious with the DQA and wrote a degree of flexibility into their guidelines for implementing DQA. Apparently this flexibility displeases OMB as it attempts to reduce EPA's discretion by writing the requirement directly into agency guidelines such as these. The DQA requirement coupled with another provision added by OMB, which permits "expert elicitation," could easily be used by industry to challenge and delay agency actions.

This delay means that children at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals will need to wait for protection while EPA does further study and analysis. Such regulatory delays often benefit industry because the cost of implementing controls and restrictions can be put off.

This isn't the first time that OMB has used data quality to delay public protections. In the 1980s evidence arose that aspirin given to children with flu symptoms could cause a potentially fatal condition called Reye's Syndrome. The Department of Health and Human Services recommended requiring warnings on aspirin containers, but OMB sent the proposal back to the agency dissatisfied with the evidence and demanded further study. Eventually court decisions forced the labeling to be put in place, but in the intervening four years nearly 200 children died from Reye's Syndrome.

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