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Embracing Change: The Next Generation of Risk Assessment

EPA develops new risk assessment practices to match pace of scientific innovations.

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In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick presented the structure of the DNA helix in a scientific paper. Just 57 years later, scientists are predicting genetic diseases and developing treatment for previously incurable ailments.

There is no doubt that our basic understanding of disease and its causes is changing at an astonishing speed. New findings in microbiology and genetics are announced on an almost daily basis, and while this is excellent news in terms of human and environmental health, it is also important to ensure a framework is in place to interpret these groundbreaking discoveries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is aware of this need and is leading a collaborative effort among several federal and state agencies to advance the science of risk assessment through greater incorporation of new knowledge in molecular biology. EPA has deemed this undertaking Next Generation Risk Assessment (NexGen) and has already launched several preliminary steps of this crucial campaign. New NexGen tools, which are currently in development, will evaluate toxicity at a molecular level and are intended to support both traditional risk assessment and green chemistry approaches.

The NexGen project is a part of a larger EPA national research effort to develop Safer Products for a Sustainable World (SPSW), the science and methods needed to produce safer chemicals using principles of green chemistry. Additionally, SPSW aims to increase our knowledge about the potential health effects of chemicals currently manufactured and to develop improved sustainable management strategies to deal with chemicals that pose risks to humans and wildlife. SPSW is crucial to NexGen, as it will provide the critical integrated evaluation data to inform assessments.

In mid-February, a NexGen conference will be held to engage a wider audience in the advancement of environmental assessment. It is hoped that an increased understanding of the Agency’s goals with respect to NexGen will spur public dialogue and provide useful feedback to EPA.

The meeting will take place February 15 and 16 in Washington, D.C. and has space for 230 participants. It will consist of several science presentations geared toward the public followed by breakout sessions during which participants will have an opportunity provide feedback. Webinars are also being planned beforehand in order to give stakeholders sufficient background and increase familiarity with discussion topics.

Dr. Ila Cote has been planning the February meeting for months and has high hopes for what it will accomplish. “We are seeking both to communicate our current activities and to solicit input on several important issues,” says Dr. Cote. “We’d like to find out how the public would like to be kept informed of these activities, what barriers exist to understanding these new types of data, and to what types of environmental problems might these new approaches be applied if they are successful.”

The February meeting will build off of a NexGen workshop that took place in November 2010 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The goal of this workshop was to elicit input from experts on several early-stage health effects assessments, or prototypes. Expert comments were used to refine the prototypes and help identify the workshop’s key points, which will be presented at the February meeting.

By determining which questions the public needs answered, the Agency will have a better idea of how to proceed in the future and how to best adapt modern risk assessment to the ever-evolving science that is behind it.

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