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Toxic Exposure Prevention: ATSDR Priority

The year was 1977. In Niagara Falls, NY, people were living, attending school and working surrounded by corroding waste disposal drums, dying trees and gardens, and puddles that entered their homes and schools. Love Canal, the local dump site, was declared a State of Emergency in 1978 after Lois Gibbs, now executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, discovered 20,000 tons of hazardous chemical wastes buried beneath her child's school. The incident drew international attention to the threat of unregulated hazardous waste dumping in communities.

Recognizing the need for more attention to the issue of toxic substance exposure, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 so federal authorities could act to address the dangers of abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps. CERCLA, also known as the Superfund Act, also created a new entity that would protect public health from hazardous wastes and environmental spills of hazardous substances: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

It took five years before ATSDR opened for service in 1985. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA 1986) broadened ATSDR's responsibilities in the areas of public health assessments, establishment and maintenance of toxicologic databases, information dissemination, and medical education.

Photo: Lab technicians in the field. Today, ATSDR's work falls into four primary areas:

  • Preventing community exposure to hazardous substances;
  • Building the science base on toxic substances;
  • Educating health care providers and the public about toxic chemicals; and
  • Maintaining health registries.

Since CERCLA passed, ATSDR's purpose has been validated over and over, in more than 900 sites all over the country such as:

  • Tar Creek Site, Oklahoma, where ATSDR did environmental sampling in the homes of children who had elevated blood lead levels. ATSDR targeted its health education program to community residents and health care providers. Today, fewer than 3% of children in the area have elevated blood lead levels−down from more than 30% in 1996. Blood- lead monitoring and educational activities continue in the community to protect children's health.
  • Libby, Montana, where ATSDR evaluated public health concerns related to the mining of vermiculite contaminated with tremolite asbestos. ATSDR has worked closely with the community on a number of projects and activities, like the Amphibole Health Risk Initiative designed to help scientists understand better amphibole exposures. Today, ATSDR is in Libby providing screening services through the local CARD Clinic to help reduce the burden of asbestos- related disease.

ATSDR works closely with communities to evaluate the public health effects related to redevelopment of brownfields properties. These are former industrial sites that may still be contaminated with hazardous substances. ATSDR has worked at more than 400 brownfields or land reuse sites to assess health effects of potential exposure to hazardous substances (e.g. Milwaukee's 30th ST Industrial Corridor, Wisconsin).

Alongside CDC, ATSDR has brought its expertise in the health effects of chemicals and other toxins to emergency response events such as:

  • Photo: Arial view of flooded homes.Hurricane Katrina, where staff deployed to the impacted areas and provided public health recommendations and evaluated health issues associated with toxic exposures, such as the large Murphy Oil Spill and debris and sediment management activities.
  • Coffeyville, Kansas, when ATSDR helped establish environmental screening levels and analyzed sampling data to make sure homes and businesses were safe after the Verdigis River flooded Coffeyville leaving thousands temporarily homeless; and the
  • Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where ATSDR supported the CDC response by reviewing environmental data from roughly 6000 samples collected by EPA and others. ATSDR also developed fact sheets for the communities impacted by the spill, congressional testimony for the Joint Information Center, and provided continuous on-site support for over 14 weeks at the Unified Command Post in Mobile, Alabama.

In collaboration with partners, ATSDR has launched important and significant registries. A registry is a database that includes information about people with specific exposures or diseases. The data are collected when a person is identified as having been exposed to a specific contaminant or event. The data are maintained over time and are intended to be used in epidemiological studies to examine long-term health outcomes (exposure registries) or risk factors for illness (disease registries).

Some of these registries are the:

Logo: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease RegistryRecently ATSDR re-designed its Toxic Substances Web Portal to make it easier for both researchers and citizens to find information about toxic substances and related health effects and exposure risks. The portal also contains 23 case studies for medical professionals who want to know more about the clinical effects of specific chemicals in people. Scientists and researchers can now search the Portal for chemicals and their effects on organ systems and human health.

As December 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the need for better protection from chemical exposure, CDC's sister agency, ATSDR, continues to work for a healthier tomorrow using the best science and providing trusted health information to prevent exposures and diseases related to toxic substances.

  • Page last reviewed: November 29, 2010 (archived document)
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
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