Bush Drops Effort to Standardize Government Risk Assessments

September 21, 2007

The Bush Administration is dropping its effort to standardize how government agencies develop risk assessments intended to protect the public or the environment.

A bulletin announcing new standards was put on hold in January, following criticism by the National Academy of Sciences.

This week, heads of agencies and departments were instructed to continue relying on a set of principles developed in 1995.

“We are following the NAS recommendations and we are withdrawing that bulletin and instead issuing this memorandum that reinforces generally accepted principles of risk analysis,” Susan E. Dudley, administrator for regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, said.

Dudley and Sharon L. Hayes, deputy director for science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, jointly signed the memorandum.

Many federal agencies conduct risk assessments as part of their regulatory activities, ranging from such topics as exposure to chemicals or the safety of construction projects.

The proposal to standardize risk assessments was announced in 2006 and opened to comment, including a request for a review of the plan by the National Academy of Sciences.

In January, the academy’s National Research Council called the plan “fundamentally flawed.”

The council said OMB’s definition of risk assessment was too broad and said the proposed standards move into “territory beyond what previous reports have recommended and beyond the current state of the science.”

Dudley, who took over the OMB job in April, noted in a telephone interview that the council said the goal of improving the review process was good, but recommended that instead of a standardized procedure the government outline goals and general principles.

She said that after studying the report and the 1995 principles, officials felt that those procedures were solid, and just needed reinforcement from more recent scientific data.

The new memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies restates the 1995 principles, including updates that have appeared over time.

Those principles called on officials to “employ the best reasonably obtainable scientific information to assess risks to health, safety and the environment,” and make recommendations for risk management and communication of risk.

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