Few Obama officials have quite as much mess to clean up as EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. As if to warn her of the gravity of her task, the General Accounting Office has just added a key EPA oversight area to its list of government functions that are at "high risk" of "fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement" (short HTML version here, massive PDF here).

The GAO added three areas to its "high-risk list" this year, making a grand total of 30. The EPA’s "Processes for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals" was one of them. (The other two new areas added to the GAO "high-risk list" are the FDA’s process for approving medical products — anyone up for a dose of Vioxx? — and, um, the "the Outdated U.S. Financial Regulatory System," an attempt to shut the barn door on a banking meltdown that will only cost your kids a few trillion, if we’re lucky.)

The section on the EPA and toxic chemicals will make bracing reading for the new administrator. Here are some highlights:

  • "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment — as well as on tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States." Wow — really? Tens of thousands?
  • The pace at which the agency assesses the toxicity of commercial chemicals might make a snail snicker. There are some 540 chemical assessments in process. How’s it going? "Overall, EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than five years, and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher."
  • Mind you, the nasty stuff the agency is assessing is out there in use — and some of it is known to cause cancer. Take Dioxin. "EPA’s assessment of dioxin has been under way for 18 years. The Assistant Administrator for Research and Development recently told a congressional committee that the agency is years away from completing the dioxin assessment … Although dioxin is a known cancer-causing chemical to which humans are regularly exposed by eating such dietary staples as meats, fish, and dairy products, actions to protect the public will likely be delayed until the assessment is complete." Uh … wow.
  • "Other toxic chemicals with widespread human exposure whose assessments have been in progress for 10 or more years include formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene. "
  • OK, one more and I have to stop; everyone should read the whole thing. "EPA’s assessments of industrial chemicals … provide limited information on health and environmental risks. Most significantly, EPA does not routinely assess the risks of the roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals that are already in use in the United States.
  • In other EPA news, Discover magazine reports that in its efforts to test the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the agency has knowingly chosen a type of rat that is unusually resistant to those substances — raising the possibility that "the animal could give a clean bill of health to chemicals that actually pose a real threat to human well-being." Come on. The EPA wouldn’t put our health at risk like that — would it?