EPA Takes Steps To Resolve Disputes Over Agencies’ Mold Guidance

Posted by Sharon on 4/06/09 on ToxLaw.com

InsideEPA.com
by Aaron Lovell

The Committee on Indoor Air Quality (CIAQ), an EPA-led inter-agency group, is taking a number of steps to resolve inter-agency disputes over how to address risks from indoor mold and improve public access to federal indoor mold research in response to recommendations in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

In the October 2008 report, GAO recommended that EPA “help agencies better ensure that their guidance to the public does not conflict,” and also “help guide federal research priorities on indoor mold,” according to the report.

The GAO tasked this to the CIAQ, a multi-agency group that coordinates the federal government’s research into indoor air  quality and includes the Department of Housing & Urban Development, National Institute for Occupational Health & Safety, the Department of Energy and others.

EPA agrees with the GAO recommendations, according to a Jan. 14 letter.  EPA Chief Financial Officer Lyons Gray sent to Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  Gray wrote that both recommendations will be included as action items at CIAQ meetings, and EPA will lead the CIAQ in considering how to implement the recommendations.

To limit conflicts between agencies’ guidance documents, the committee agreed to work towards creating a single location where guidance from the different agencies could be found, along with the agencies’ research.  “We can do something to improve access to information and improve coordination,” Philip Jalbert, an EPA official and executive secretary of the CIAQ, suggested at a Feb. 18 meeting, particularly regarding remediation and susceptible populations, as discussed in the report.

As part of the implementation of this recommendation, the CIAQ will “look at all existing [agency] guidance and see whether conflicts exist and look at how to resolve those conflicts,” Jalbert said.  Speaking after the meeting, Jalbert said he hopes the process would be “as collaborative as possible.”

To improve public access to mold research, the CIAQ agreed to send letters to each agency to identify a person of contact in an effort to help guide the agencies’ research priorities for indoor mold.  In terms of providing information to the public, another recommendation from the GAO, Jalbert suggested at the February meeting looking into a way to coordinate the sharing of research, such as “having agencies make information available in a standard way or have agencies update a portal with information [presented] in a standard way.”

The committee also agreed to discuss how the agencies can best inform and involve members of the public on the issue, and Jalbert pointed out that some of the agencies dealing with mold “may already have tools in place” to interact with the public.  As far as the coordinated effort, “What kind of tools are we going to employ to make this happen?” he said.

An activist who works on mold issues was encouraged by the response, saying it is “extremely important for one agency” to provide information on mold, because it is a “very political issue” and there are a “lot of myths and mixed information.”  The CIAQ response is noteworthy because it “would not promote a concept of where science has to go,” but would rather “make sure accurate information is coming out of the government,” the source adds.

The January EPA letter says the agency’s response will “build upon the work that was done in 2005 in coordinating the efforts of federal agencies to address indoor mold in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  EPA assessed the lessons learned from these experiences and incorporated important messages into our outreach documents, low literacy publications, website, public service announcements and other materials.”

While EPA lacks authority to require remediation to address mold, the agency drew criticism from environmentalists in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005 when it declined to require additional testing for the presence of mold in water-damaged buildings.  Agency officials later said they lacked the legal authority to address the issue.

Activists welcomed the GAO report, as it adopts a precautionary approach to toxic mold exposure and calls on EPA to lead efforts to bolster federal warnings about exposure risks and improve research.  Many public health advocates have long been concerned that exposure to mold causes adverse health effects like asthma and upper respiratory tract problems.  The profile of the issue has increased in recent years, as evidenced by the participation of numerous groups and members of the public on a conference call accompanying the meeting.

Still, other groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have argued that the connection is not supported by sound science and leads to unnecessary litigation by plaintiffs seeking building remediation.

Activists Welcome GAO Call For EPA To Boost Mold Warning Efforts

Public health advocates are welcoming a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that adopts a precautionary approach to toxic mold exposure and calls on EPA to lead efforts to bolster federal warnings about exposure risks and improve research, which the agency says is needed to set a health protection standard.

Some advocates are also suggesting that because the report recommends mitigation even in the absence of a standard, it could help overcome insurance and other industry groups’ legal defenses in toxic mold suits, which cite studies claiming exposure is not harmful.  “This groundbreaking report refutes the notion that mold is only a nuisance or a minor allergen. It is a key document to use in any venue where one might wish to cite the serious nature of mold exposure,” according to the Center for School Mold Help, a group that seeks to address mold in school buildings.

But other sources are downplaying the significance of the document, saying it sheds no new light on the issue.  Many public health advocates have long been concerned that exposure to mold causes adverse health effects like asthma and upper respiratory tract problems.  But other groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have argued that the connection is not supported by sound science and leads to unnecessary litigation by plaintiffs seeking building remediation.

While EPA lacks authority to require remediation to address mold, the agency drew criticism from environmentalists in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005 when it declined to require additional testing for the presence of mold in water-damaged buildings.  Agency officials later said they lacked legal authority to address the issue.

The GAO report, Indoor Mold: Better Coordination of Research on Health Effects and More Consistent Guidance Would Improve Federal Efforts, which was released last month, was requested by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Charmain Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in October 2006.  Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.

In an Oct. 20, 2006 letter to the GAO, Kennedy said that “human exposure to environmental mold and the toxins they produce are known to result in allergic and other hyper sensitivity reactions in healthy individuals.”  The letter continues, “These health effects, coupled with the unprecedented rebuilding of flooded residences and businesses along the coasts of New Orleans, Mississippi and Louisiana could trigger a significant public health crisis.”

A spokeswoman for Kennedy did not rule out hearings on the issue in the 111th Congress, saying last month that they “will evaluate the committee’s hearing schedule on Senator Kennedy’s return to the Senate.”  The GAO document points out that even though there are data gaps and no federal health protection standard, enough is known about the risks that federal agencies should do a better job informing the public of possible risks and improving research.

The report recommends that the EPA-led Committee for Indoor Air Quality (CIAQ) lead efforts to coordinate mold research among federal agencies and take the lead on articulating and guiding research priorities across the involved federal agencies and help agencies review their public guidance on mold to “better ensure that it sufficiently alerts the public, especially vulnerable populations, about the potential adverse health effects of exposure to indoor mold and educates them on how to minimize exposure in homes.”

CIAQ is an interagency group led by EPA.  Other agencies involved in the panel include the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Department of Energy, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the departments of Labor, Housing & Urban Development (HUD), Health & Human Services (HHS), Agriculture and Defense.

The report recommends that the CIAQ ensure consistent guidance among different agencies.  For example, guidance issued by CPSC, EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, HHS, and HUD cites a variety of health effects of exposure to indoor mold but in some cases omits less common but serious effects.  Moreover, while guidance on minimizing indoor mold growth is generally consistent, guidance on mitigating exposure to indoor mold is sometimes inconsistent about cleanup agents, protective clothing and equipment, and sensitive populations.  As a result, the public may not be sufficiently advised of indoor mold’s potential health risks, the report says.

The report also finds that data gaps involving adverse health affects are “being minimally addressed.”  “Of the 65 research activities, nearly 60 percent address asthma, and more than half address . . . sampling and exposure assessment methods for indoor mold,” the report says, while there are not enough studies looking at other adverse health endpoints.

Such lack of data is important, according to EPA, because the lack of regulation of airborne concentrations of indoor mold “is largely due to the insufficiency of data needed to establish a scientifically defensible health-based standard,” the report says. “Another factor is the lack of scientific consensus regarding how best to measure these concentrations.”

One public health advocate says that the GAO report demonstrates a “precautionary principle,” coming to the conclusion that, despite existing research gaps, “enough is known that it is important to warn the public of possible or plausible ill health effects in a consistent, coordinated manner” and that “inter-agency coordination is required to properly warn the public, to properly educate health agencies and to effectively advance the scientific understanding of causes, exacerbations and symptoms of mycotic and related diseases.”

The source adds that the report is important because it is an acknowledgment from the federal government “that many of the symptoms of ill health being reported by US citizens after their exposure to microbial contaminants in water-damaged buildings” might be caused by the exposure.

Still, a neurotoxicologist who has worked on the issue says that, while the report is a “good effort,” it is “woefully inadequate” for dealing with the research gaps identified by GAO.  According to the report, research by EPA, HHS and HUD includes five projects addressing the “effects of human exposure to stachybotrys chartarum,” a greenish-black mold that some believe has adverse health effects, four projects focusing on doses of the fungi-based mycotoxins needed to cause adverse health effects via inhalation or skin, and one exploring the relationship between mold and dampness and acute pulmonary hemorrhage in infants.

“Those are the [studies] you’d like to see at the top” of the list, the source says.

The second source would like to see “a national research program to investigate adverse health effects from exposure” to mold, with funding for studies specifically solicited by the agencies to look at the connection between adverse health effects and mold.

According to the report, EPA generally agreed with recommendations that it use CIAQ to help articulate and guide research priorities on indoor mold across relevant federal agencies and help relevant agencies review their existing guidance to the public on indoor mold.

Aaron Lovell

toxlaw.com

About Sharon Kramer

Hi, I'm an advocate for integrity in health marketing and in the courts.
This entry was posted in Environmental Health Threats, Health - Medical - Science, Mold and Politics, Mold Litigation, Toxic Mold and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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