WASHINGTON -- After weeks of internal debate, the White House decided against a plan to revise the government system for analyzing the risks from toxic chemicals in air, water and food, administration officials said yesterday.
The President's Council on Competitiveness, a Cabinet-level group headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, had urged President Bush to consider substantial changes in the process of determining risks. The council maintained that the present system, costing billions of dollars, needs to be modernized.
Overall, the council said its goal was to save the most lives for the money spent. But critics feared that a wholesale change in the methods of risk assessment would result in dangerously weaker standards.
The executive order under consideration could have set up a new group of scientists to oversee how regulatory agencies assess risk. It also called for new assessment procedures based on a different set of scientific assumptions. Under these procedures, which have strong backing among scientists, many hazards could have been rated innocuous at low levels.
Administration sources said they were concerned that the plan might have become an issue in the presidential campaign because the public would distrust a system that might relax standards for such things as the levels of asbestos in the air or pesticide residues in food.
The government approaches questions about the hazards of toxic substances now much the way it has for four decades: it depends on animal studies that poorly predict the effects of toxins on humans and mathematical formulas that assume some level of risk exists even at minute exposure levels. Over time, this system of predicting risks became the foundation for a wide variety of health and safety regulations.
Some White House officials say Mr. Bush and Mr. Quayle are concerned that the nation is spending too much money to correct environmental hazards that do not pose a high risk to human health.
For example, the United States is spending more than $10 billion a year to clean up toxic and radioactive wastes. And so some officials are asking: Should it spend that money on new sewage systems to prevent human wastes and bacteria from polluting ocean beaches?
These officials cite an estimate by the National Cancer Institute that 1 to 3 percent of the 520,000 cancer-related deaths expected this year will be caused by environmental exposures to toxic compounds.
Environmentalists contended that the plan was another facet of the administration's program to weaken environmental regulations and make it less costly for industry to meet health and safety laws, thus exposing workers and the public to greater dangers.