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ATSDR’s Emergency Response Program

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HAZMAT Team Members Discusses Chemical DisasterATSDR’s Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences is home to the Emergency Response Program (ERP). The ERP provides leadership and coordination related to public health during environmental hazardous substance emergencies. The ERP represents ATSDR in such emergencies using the authority of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act or CERCLA. Did you know that emergency response teams are available 24 hours a day, and are comprised of toxicologists, chemists, and other scientists?

Environmental Hazardous Substance Emergencies and Response

Environmental hazardous substance emergencies are events that threaten public safety, health, and welfare. These emergencies include, but are not limited to the following events:

  • industrial plant explosions,
  • chemical spills, and
  • other uncontrolled or unstable releases of hazardous chemicals.

These events vary in size, location, cause, and effect. As such, some events require intervention within hours to prevent or lessen negative human consequences. An emergency response to such an event is the timely organization, coordination, and direction of available resources to lessen the negative impact of the hazardous substance on the community and the environment and speed the recovery process. The role and goal of ATSDR’s ERP during a response is to protect public health.


Here’s a general example of how the ATSDR ERP recently responded to an incident in Tennessee: A train derailment near the town of Maryville resulted in the release of the toxic chemical acrylonitrile including a fire. The ERP reviewed the situation and provided advice based on environmental data obtained during the response. The ERP and other ATSDR groups developed a fact sheet that provided information to residents returning to their homes after the “all clear” was issued.”

How the ERP Works

The program’s responsibilities include responding to requests for assistance during environmental hazardous substance emergencies from entities such as

  • federal, state, and local agencies,
  • hospitals,
  • private industries, and
  • the public.

Examples of when ATSDR’s ERP responds include these typical circumstances:

  • emergency responders need help estimating the health implications of a chemical release,
  • health workers or emergency responders need to know how to protect themselves,
  • the toxic effects of a substance must be known or evaluated,
  • a hazardous substance is involved in a national disaster, and when
  • doctors need information on chemicals to treat their patients due to exposure to a hazardous substance.

Categorizing Emergency Responses

ATSDR categorizes emergency responses as requiring low, medium, and high levels of involvement by the ERP.

Refer to the table below regarding how ATSDR/ERP responds to emergencies:

LOW/TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE Provides sources for toxicological information only. The requestor (such as a state or local/community public health department) applies the information to their situation to resolve it.
MEDIUM/HEALTH CONSULTATION Provides an assessment of incident-specific information.  Coordinates with other groups across DTHHS, ATSDR, and other health organizations as appropriate to provide information and suggest ways to apply that information to the requestor’s situation.  A recommendation or a conclusion is part of the health consultation.
HIGH Requires that the ATSDR ERP engage with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and outside organizations. Collaboration is paramount in these responses, given there is limited information about the potential negative health consequences of the chemical substance released and a large number of people are potentially impacted by the event.


The ERP has several resources available to address acute release situations:

ATSDR Emergency Response Program

Assessment of Chemical Exposures (ACE) Program

HazMat Emergency Preparedness Training & Tools for Responders

Medical Management Guidelines (MMG)

National Toxic Substances Incidents Program (NTSIP)

Rapid Response Registry (RRR)

Toxic Substances Portal

How to Get Assistance from ATSDR

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is the lead federal public health agency for response to releases of hazardous substances into the environment. For assistance on public health issues related to the release of a hazardous substance or the threat of a release, contact the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100. 24-hours a day and ask to speak with an ATSDR Duty Officer.

If you enjoyed reading about ATSDR’s ERP, learn more about the accomplishments of ATSDR.


Posted on by Blog Administrator

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