SXSW wasn’t the only event that drew people from around the world to Austin in March.
Toxicologists from as far away as the Netherlands and New Zealand travelled to the TCEQ’s Park 35 Circle campus to attend “Beyond Science and Decisions: From Issue Identification to Dose-Response Assessment,” a workshop organized by the Alliance for Risk Assessment.
Different Camps Discuss the Silver Book
The workshop brought together representatives from academic, governmental, industrial, and nonprofit institutions to discuss a report, “Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment,” which was published in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The report is also known as the “Silver Book,” because of its silver cover.
“The Silver Book recommends that risk assessors change the way they look at a chemical, and assume that a chemical has no safe level of exposure,” says chief TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, Ph.D. “That’s the complete opposite of the way we’ve done it for centuries. Science and biology will tell you that there is a safe level of exposure for most chemicals. However, mathematicians will tell you that there is no safe level of exposure.”
“This workshop was really the first time since the report came out that people from both camps got together to talk about it,” he adds.
Focus on Biological and Statistical Issues
Through a series of meetings and discussions led by panels of experts, attendees focused on biological and statistical issues related to dose-response assessment, which is the process used to determine the level at which a chemical will produce harmful health effects.
Representing the Environmental Defense Fund at the workshop was air quality specialist Elena Craft, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology from Duke University.
“These are important discussions to have,” says Craft. “The decisions that evolve from processes like this will eventually affect everyone on a day-to-day basis. We need everyone’s input in developing the best ways to assess and manage risk.”
Workshops Will Lead to a Guidance Document
The workshop in Austin, which was also available via webcast, was the first in a series of three that will be conducted over the course of a year. Participants will research and fully develop selected case studies, with the ultimate goal of developing a consensus-based guidance document.
“The guidance document will combine the best that the biologists and toxicologists have to offer with the best of what was in the 2008 NAS report,” says Honeycutt.
Participant Debra A. Kaden, Ph.D., who represented the Mickey Leland National Urban Air Toxics Research Center, one of the workshop sponsors, emphasizes the importance of the workshops. “This research will ultimately inform agencies that make regulatory decisions,” she says, “including ones that do risk assessment.”
Honeycutt agrees. “It’s not something that will happen overnight,” he says. “However, the process will definitely change how we do chemical assessments and will dramatically affect everything that this agency does in the future.”
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