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Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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. The Agency will also perform health assessments when petitioned by a community. Though ATSDR's early health assessments have been criticized, the Agency's later assessments and other products are 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 has preformed 951 health assessments in the two years after the law was passed. Approximately one quarter of these assessments were memos or reports that had been completed prior to 1986 and were simply re-labeled as health assessments.

These first assessments have been 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. Recently, ATSDR received less than 5% of the $1.6 billion appropriated for the Superfund project.

Subsequent health assessments, more than 200 of them, 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 now 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 performance 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.

[Alair MacLean ]



Environmental Epidemiology: Public Health and Hazardous Wastes. National Research Council. Committee on Environmental Epidemiology. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1991.

Lewis, S., B. Keating, and D. Russell. Inconclusive by Design: Waste, Fraud and Abuse in Federal Environmental Health Research. Boston: National Toxics Campaign Fund; and Harvey, LA: Environmental Health Network, 1992.


Superfund: Public Health Assessments Incomplete and of Questionable Value. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, 1991.


The ATSDR Information Center, , (404) 498-0110, Fax: (404) 498-0057, Toll Free: (888) 422-8737, Email: [email protected], <>

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