Consensus-Based Standards Development Processes-Serving the Needs of the Environment and Public-Health Community. (Guest Commentary)

By Kupfer, George | Journal of Environmental Health, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Consensus-Based Standards Development Processes-Serving the Needs of the Environment and Public-Health Community. (Guest Commentary)


Kupfer, George, Journal of Environmental Health


Make no mistake about it-- standards are important! Standards play an important role in protecting public safety, setting benchmarks, and establishing consistency in product evaluation. Standards also are a means of communicating procedures and criteria applied to a product or system, and they provide a mechanism for establishing consensus among the community of interested parties. Regulators and jurisdictional authorities, for example, rely on standards that support statutes and regulations to achieve community environmental health goals and to establish desired safety requirements.

While many state and local agencies have expertise adequate to develop a proposed text, hold public hearings, and adopt appropriate criteria for many routine regulations, the expertise and resources available for developing complex and deeply involved scientific and health effect regulations are limited. The process can be long, expensive and politically sensitive. There also is a need for requirements and processes to be relatively uniform among communities (or states) to avoid confusion and damaging debate concerning health and safety threats.

This is an area in which voluntary standards developed by accredited organizations have the potential to provide help. The process of developing such standards involves all interested stakeholders in the establishment of scientifically correct and acceptable standards. Standards developed under procedures recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) become American National Standards and can be referenced without cost by any regulatory agency in local or state regulations. The savings in time and tax dollars, along with the credibility gained through input of scientific, regulatory, consumer, and industry resources, represent a significant value for the regulatory agency The benefits to the industry are more uniform regulations, and the benefits to the community are state-of-the-art compliance requirements.

The business community, the public, standards development and certification organizations, and enforcement agencies are realizing the importance of standards in their areas of interest and are calling for an increased voice in the standards development process. Recognizing the importance of standards, they expect an open process in which all points of view are heard, in which all stakeholders can fully participate, and in which the principles of consensus and due process are followed. Anything less compromises the delicate balance of competing interests and casts doubts on the validity of the process and the resulting standard.

Standards Development

Many methods and processes can be used to develop standards. Standards may be developed by standards organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), or by trade associations such as the Water Quality Association (WQA). Then there are professional societies such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the American Society of Sanitary Engineers (ASSE), as well as individual companies creating standards for their own internal use, accredited committees, industry consortia, and certification bodies such as Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) and NSF International.

The rules applied to standards development can be different for each of these various entities depending on the circumstances and the application of the standard. If a company needs to prepare a document to govern the way something is carried out in its own organization, it may establish a standard, within legal and ethical boundaries, and has no obligation to explain that standard to anyone else (unless the standard is subject to external accreditation). If the standard is intended to be used among just a few interests, such as two or three companies doing business with each other, then there is similar freedom to develop and administer the standard as the participants choose. …

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