ATSDR Investigates Superfund Sites

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Barrels of Hazardous Waste

Whether it’s lead, cadmium, or zinc at a mining company in Oklahoma, tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene at the Kittatinny Limestone Aquifer in New Jersey, or perchlorates in Tierra Verde Lake in Arizona, ATSDR examines health effects of toxic substances on people who live and work on and around Superfund sites.

As Mark Johnson, the regional director of ATSDR’s Chicago Office—stated, “Our work at Superfund sites involves evaluating environmental data, providing consultation support to EPA and other decision-makers, and addressing health concerns of the affected communities.”

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leads the clean-up efforts at Superfund sites, ATSDR conducts public health assessments of the sites.

“In cases where a company or individual are shown to be responsible for the contamination, EPA tries to make sure they are held responsible to pay for the assessment and cleanup,” Johnson said. “The average cost to clean up a Superfund site is many millions of dollars.”

During these assessments, ATSDR scientists carry out an independent, comprehensive review of available information about environmental contamination at the site and areas nearby where people who live and work could be exposed.

In addition to collaborating with EPA and other governmental agencies, ATSDR scientists actively engage with residents, community activists, environmental groups, and other interested parties. Collecting information from communities is an important part of the health assessment. When assessments determine that critical information about the presence of a health hazard is lacking, we recommend that steps be taken to collect those data.

What is Superfund?

Superfund is the name given to the U.S. EPA’s program to address uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites. Learn more by visiting the EPA Superfund website.

Scientists review related technical data to learn what toxic substances are present and in what amounts. EPA, state and local governmental agencies, and other parties sometimes supply the environmental data to ATSDR to determine whether people have been exposed to chemicals or other toxic substances. ATSDR also uses information from medical, toxicological, and epidemiological studies and disease registries to evaluate the potential for those exposures to lead, or have the potential to lead to health effects in people.

ATSDR releases findings to the public in different ways, including public health assessments, health consultations, public meetings, and facts sheets written in plain language.

The public health assessment draws conclusions about the potential for environmental contamination at a Superfund site to affect people’s health. If a health hazard exists, ATSDR makes recommendations to stop or lower the risk.

Birth of an Agency

In response to the environmental disasters at Love Canal and Times Beach, Missouri, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund legislation. CERCLA gave EPA primary responsibility for identifying, investigating, and cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

CERCLA also authorized the establishment of ATSDR to assess the presence and nature of health hazards to communities living near Superfund sites, to help prevent or reduce harmful exposures, and to expand the knowledge base about the health effects that result from exposure to hazardous substances.

ATSDR was created as an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services on April 19, 1983. The Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gave ATSDR additional authority related to hazardous waste storage facilities.

ATSDR was charged with conducting public health assessments at these sites when requested by EPA, states, or individuals, as well as assisting EPA to determine which substances should be regulated and the levels at which chemicals may pose a threat to human health.

ATSDR was formally organized as an agency on June 11, 1985. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) broadened ATSDR’s responsibilities in the areas of public health assessments, establishment and maintenance of toxicological databases, information dissemination, and medical education.

In 2003, the position of assistant administrator was replaced with a director who is shared with National Center for Environmental Health.

For More Information

  • For more about public health assessments, visit the ATSDR website.
  • To find out more about Superfund sites, visit the EPA website.


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Page last reviewed: January 27, 2015
Page last updated: January 27, 2015