The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) studies the health effects of hazardous substances in general and at specific locations. As indicated by its title, the agency maintains a registry of people exposed to toxic chemicals.
Along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ATSDR prepares and updates profiles of toxic substances. In addition, ATSDR assesses the potential dangers posed to human health by exposure to hazardous substances at Superfund sites.
ATSDR performs health assessments when petitioned by a community. Although ATSDR's early health assessments were criticized, the agency's later assessments and other products were considered more useful.
ATSDR was created in 1980 by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund, as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As originally conceived, ATSDR's role was limited to performing health studies and examining the relationship between toxic substances and disease. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 codified ATSDR's responsibility for assessing health threats at Superfund sites. ATSDR, along with the national Centers for Disease Control and state health departments, conducts health surveys in communities near locations that have been placed on the Superfund's National Priorities List for clean up.
ATSDR's first assessments were harshly criticized. The General Accounting Office (GAO), a congressional agency that reviews the actions of the federal administration, charged that most of these assessments were inadequate. Some argued that the agency was underfunded and poorly organized. ATSDR only receives about 5% of the money appropriated for the Superfund project.
Subsequent health assessments have generally been more complete, but they still may not be adequate in informing the community and the EPA of the dangers at specific sites. In general, ATSDR identifies a local agency to help prepare the health surveys. Unlike many of the first assessments, more recent surveys include site visits and face-to-face interviews. However, other data on environmental effects are limited. ATSDR only considers environmental information provided by the companies that created the hazard or data collected by the EPA. In addition, ATSDR only assesses health risks from illegal emissions, not from “permitted” emissions. Some scientists contend that not enough is known about the health effects of exposure to hazardous substances to make conclusive health assessments.
Reaction to the quality of ATSDR's other functions has been generally more positive. As mandated by SARA, ATSDR and the EPA have prepared hundreds of toxicological profiles of hazardous substances. These profiles have been judged generally helpful, and the GAO praised ATSDR's registry of people who have been exposed to toxic substances.
ATSDR still receives criticism from politicians and environmental groups for underreporting the impact of toxic substances on human health. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee held hearings on ATSDR's issuance of a flawed health consultation on the impact of formaldehyde in trailers used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to house evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
See also Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) ; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ; Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) ; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services .
Kumar, Vineet. Environmental Toxicity of Nanomaterials. CRC Press, 2018.
Lippmann, Morton, ed. Environmental Toxicants: Human Exposures and Their Health Effects. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience, 2009.
Rapp, Doris. Our Toxic World: A Wake Up Call. Buffalo, NY: Environmental Research Foundation, 2004.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Superfund.” June 4, 2018. http://www.epa.gov/superfund/index.htm (accessed June 11, 2018).
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4770 Buford Hwy. NE, Atlanta, GA, 30341, (800) 232-4636, ATSDRIC@cdc.gov, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov .
Revised by Stacey Chamberlin