Superfund:

Public Health Assessments Incomplete and of Questionable Value

RCED-91-178: Published: Aug 1, 1991. Publicly Released: Sep 6, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the quality and usefulness of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) health assessments of Superfund sites.

GAO held that: (1) the quality of ATSDR health assessments suffered due to legislation requiring ATSDR to complete assessments for 951 sites in a little over 2 years; (2) although ATSDR met the deadline, it did so by labelling documents prepared prior to legislation as health assessments and conducting assessments without visiting sites; (3) later assessments improved technically, since ATSDR had fewer sites to assess and it relied less exclusively on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) file information; (4) due to the deadline, ATSDR failed to conduct required quality control checks on its assessments and consult external sources to review the assessments; (5) ATSDR planned to review previously published assessments to ensure that they complied with legislative requirements and redrafted its health assessment guidance to require that future health assessments emphasize community health concerns and consider existing community health statistics; (6) EPA did not find ATSDR health assessments useful, since the assessments duplicated information in EPA analyses and recommended actions EPA already planned or required, but EPA found ATSDR health consultations useful; (7) most of the state and local government officials and community representatives GAO contacted did not know about ATSDR health assessments of local sites and those who had seen the assessments did not find them useful; and (8) health assessments did not include adequate information to determine the need for more detailed health studies.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has requested GAO to reexamine the quality and usefulness of ATSDR health assessments. GAO plans to begin this review in May 1993.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider reviewing the utility of ATSDR health assessments after allowing sufficient time for the new ATSDR health assessment procedures to take effect. If, at the end of this period, assessments have not proven useful, Congress may wish to reconsider whether the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act requirement for an ATSDR assessment of the public health effects of each Superfund site should be continued.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ATSDR developed a plan to update old assessments.

    Recommendation: To ensure consistently acceptable quality of health assessments, the Administrator, ATSDR, should develop a plan to update past assessments. The plan should include a time schedule for revising assessments and a statement of the resources needed to meet it and should ensure that the most potentially hazardous sites are re-examined in accordance with the agency's current guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Centers for Disease Control: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ATSDR established an outside peer review board.

    Recommendation: To ensure consistently acceptable quality of health assessments, the Administrator, ATSDR, should arrange for at least a sample of future assessments to be reviewed by outside, independent public health professionals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Centers for Disease Control: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA and ATSDR are using their mid-management forum, an interagency work group, to deal with the issues GAO raised.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of ATSDR assessments to EPA, the Administrator, ATSDR, and the Administrator, EPA, should set up an interagency work group to review how the value of ATSDR assessments to EPA could be increased and duplicate analyses avoided.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Centers for Disease Control: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA and ATSDR are using their mid-management forum, an interagency work group, to deal with the issues GAO raised.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of ATSDR assessments to EPA, the Administrator, ATSDR, and the Administrator, EPA, should set up an interagency work group to review how the value of ATSDR assessments to EPA could be increased and duplicate analyses avoided.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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