Major US Environmental Health Laws and Regulations

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority and responsibility to regulate toxic chemicals under the following:

  • Clean Air Act (CAA) for toxic air pollutants
  • Clean Water Act (CWA) for toxic water contaminants
  • Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) for toxic wastes deposited in or on the ground
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) which was amended by the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) for pesticides
  • Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) for toxic chemicals generally.

Sometimes two or more of the laws overlap, or one or more agencies share regulatory authority. For example, both the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulate worker exposure to harmful chemicals.

Manufacturers of pesticides and pharmaceuticals are required to test the effectiveness and safety of their products prior to their review for registration purposes, a relatively precautionary approach. Unfortunately, for pesticides, the testing is incomplete and not fully health-protective, yet the legislative intent is that the safety of all newly proposed pesticide products be evaluated prior to marketing.

Most other of the more than 80,000 chemicals used by industry in the US have not historically undergone similar scrutiny under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which did not require manufacturers to prove the safety of chemicals before introducing them to the marketplace. The first reform to the 1976 TSCA law was finally enacted in 2016, the Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. It provides the EPA important new powers to require chemical testing and to take action to restrict priority chemicals and more authority for chemical testing. The public and environmental health communities wait to see if the new provisions will be effective.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund) provides a Federal “Superfund” to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment. Through CERCLA, EPA was given power to seek out those parties responsible for any release and assure their cooperation in the cleanup and when possible to recover costs from responsible parties (“polluter pays”). CERCLA was originally funded by a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, but in 2002, the Bush administration shifted the tax burden from industry to the general public. As a result, the fund was depleted by 2004, slowing cleanup at Superfund sites and leaving taxpayers responsible for future cleanups when polluters cannot be identified or are unable to pay.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA, or SARA Title III), an amendment to the hazardous waste site Superfund law, requires the owners and operators of large manufacturing facilities to report to the EPA and state regulatory agencies their environmental releases (to land, air and water) and off-site transfers of certain toxic chemicals on an annual basis, and also to the public in a computerized “Toxics Release Inventory” (TRI), the first publicly accessible, online computer database ever mandated by federal law.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting public health:

  • Ensuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products and medical devices
  • Ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics and products that emit radiation
  • Responsibility for regulating the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of tobacco products.

Although it was not known by its present name until 1930, FDA’s modern regulatory functions began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. Legislation authorizing FDA’s responsibility for regulating ingredients in cosmetics is weak and ineffective, leaving the industry essentially in the position of regulating itself. New legislation to correct this is pending before Congress.

The California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Proposition 65) was passed as a ballot referendum in 1986. This law protects the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and requires businesses to use warning labels to inform Californians about exposures to such chemicals from consumer products. Proposition 65 requires the state to maintain and update a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.

This section is drawn in part from Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment.6