Preserving Right To Know Information and Encouraging Hazard Reduction to Reduce the Risk of Exposure to Toxic Substances

  • Date: Nov 13 2002
  • Policy Number: 20025

Key Words: Cancer, Chemicals, Confidentiality and Privacy, Environment, Health Records, Patient Rights, Occupational Health And Safety, Acid Rain, Air Quality, Freedom of Information, Right to Know

The American Public Health Association,

Recognizing that many toxic substances used in the manu-facturing of products for commercial and consumer use are known to harm human health even at low levels of exposure, and that the full range of human health impacts of thousands of chemicals in use are unknown1;

Recognizing that intentional and unintentional releases of hazardous substances pose dangers to communities, that thousands of facilities pose chemical release hazards to the public, and that such releases have caused deaths, injuries, and evacuations2;

Recognizing that public and institutional awareness of these long-existing risks has increased following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States3;

Recognizing that the same facilities which are now under scrutiny as potential targets or weapons for terrorists (since they contain easily recognizable major hazardous facilities, such as process vessels, bulk storage tanks, pipelines, and railcars) have posed and continue to pose on-going threats to communities because of the risk of harm from intentional releases and from releases due to error, malfunction, and other reasons unrelated to terrorist activity;

Recognizing that emergency responders and planners, hospital emergency room personnel, health care providers, public health officials, workers and other citizens at risk need to know what kinds of chemical release emergencies they and their families might have to face in case  of chemical release4;

Noting that because of repeated chemical accidents, the U.S. Congress in 1990 enacted a comprehensive national chemical accident prevention program, a key component of which is the dissemination to the public, including workers and communities at risk, of risk information submitted by thousands of facilities using or storing hazardous materials,5 and that the Internet has been a vital method of disseminating such information, including detailed facility hazard analyses, emergency response programs, and prevention programs (specifically excluding worst case scenario information, as directed by Congress after consultation with industry and law enforcement officials and taking specific account of the need to exclude sensitive information from potential terrorists)6;

Recognizing that an essential part of maintaining national safety and security is hazard reduction: limiting the routine releases and unnecessary use, production and storage of hazardous chemicals;

Noting that such hazard reduction measures have appreciably reduced the potential for chemical releases, as in the case of the state of New Jersey, where the use and storage of large quantities of chlorine gas significantly declined, from 575 facilities in 1988 to 22 facilities in 2001, under the state’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act8;

Acknowledging that limiting access to information to prevent some intentional releases is not a substitute for a holistic approach of effective policies and actions that prevent and control environmental hazards8;

Therefore, the American Public Health Association (APHA), building on existing policy statements on Right-To-Know information:9

Reaffirms the importance of right-to-know programs and hazard reduction activities as an essential means to protect individuals and communities from the harm due to the release of hazardous chemicals and urges the vigorous defense of such existing programs and activities;

Reaffirms its strong support for worker and community right-to-know as an essential information tool for public health and safety improvements and affirms that information about hazardous conditions allows individual citizens as well as their elected representatives to make informed choices about their own and their community’s health and safety and improves the prevention, recognition and treatment of conditions related to environmental exposures (while also recognizing that right-to-know laws are not substitutes for effective regulation or a sweeping solution to all problems associated with toxic substances)10;

Reaffirms its strong support for existing local, state, and federal right-to-know laws and activities, open public records, and sunshine programs. At the federal level this includes OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard, the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986; and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 199011; Opposes broadly-worded provisions in legislation or regulation that would potentially erode needed public access to vital chemical risk information;

Urges that the existing limited national capacity for planning and prevention related to chemical hazards, including local emergency planning committees, should be strengthened, not dismantled, in the wake of terrorist attacks and thus opposes the wholesale removal by federal agencies of important chemical hazard and risk information previously available to the public from government Web sites and in recently-established federal reading rooms12;

Urges that additional federal resources be allocated to aid commu-nity efforts to analyze, evaluate and conduct hazard assessment and

risk reduction around hazardous facilities in communities across the nation (as envisioned in both the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990);

Supports as the option of first resort in all efforts to address chemical hazards, policies and activities that eliminate or reduce chemical hazards as the option of first resort13

Calls upon government officials, facility owners and operators, and public health practitioners to recognize and act on the following principles:

  • The incorporation of hazard reduction is a fundamental component of preventing the release of hazardous chemicals (whether from criminal activities or ordinary operations);
  • The elimination or reduction of chemical hazards is the option of first resort rather than add-on site security or safety measures and equipment that may fail in an emergency,
  • Mandatory national safety, control and security standards must be adopted for chemical hazards that cannot otherwise be eliminated;
  • The right-to-know about chemicals in one’s neighborhood or work-place or near one’s child’s school is not only an important right in our democracy but a vital component of public health and should not be lightly abridged; and
  • The public health community must be prepared, equipped and trained to identify, prevent, and respond to routine and emergency ex-posures to environmental health hazards.

Opposes the arbitrary removal of and/or limitations on access to information and, in the event a determination is made to halt or limit public access to information, urges the establishment of required procedures to be followed to assure the maintenance of records for archival, scientific and historic purposes;

Urges that reviews undertaken in light of potential security concerns regarding access to information related to such hazards such as, but not limited to, government website content and databases and private facility management:

  • include public health professionals and others who have used such information to improve community health and safety;
  • abide by consistent standards and criteria, deliberately applied;
  • uphold hazard prevention as the first option over appeals to withhold information;
  • place the burden of doubt on those who would withhold public safety information; and, 
  • respect the public’s right-to-know and honoring the government’s duty to warn of potential harm.


  1. “Children and Toxic Substances: Confronting a Major Public Health Challenge,” M. Schaefer, Environmental Health Perspectives 1994;102(Supp 2):155-156.
  2. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), FY 2000 Annual Report, Washington, DC.; see also: Risk Management Planning: Accidental Release Prevention; Final Rule: Clean Air Act section 112(r), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 550-F-96-002, May 1996 and Chemical Accident Prevention And The Clean Air Act Amendments Of 1990——Fact Sheet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 550-F-96-004, May 1996.
  3. See, for example, “Chemical Plants Are Feared as Targets; Views Differ on Ways To Avert Catastrophe,” James V. Grimaldi and Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post, Sunday, December 16, 2001, p. A01; “Companies Responding to Potential Threat,” Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times On the Web, October 3, 2001; “Terrorism at the Plant Level: Attacks lead to more security, secrecy for chemical companies,” Jeff Johnson, Chemical & Engineering News, Volume 79, Number 39, p. 12.
  4. Chemical Accident Prevention And The Clean Air Act Amendments Of 1990 - Fact Sheet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 550-F-96-004, May 1996.
  5. P.L. 101-549, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, esp. Section 112 (r), which established a new Chemical Safety and Hazards Investigation Board.
  6. P.L.106-40, the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security, and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act of 1999.
  7. Process Plants: A Handbook for Inherently Safer Design, Trevor Kletz, 1998.
  8. “New Jersey C12 Information on Facility Switches,” October 5, 2001.
  9. APHA Policy Statements 8603, “Occupational Health and Safety in Health Care Settings,” 8607 “Worker Notification of Adverse Health Findings,” and 7715 “Informing Workers of Occupational Health Risks.”
  10. APHA Policy Statements 8714, “Strengthening Worker/Community Right-To-Know” and 8416, “Increasing Worker and Community Awareness of Toxic Hazards in the Workplace,” APHA Public Policy Statements, 1948 to present, cumulative.
  11. See Reference [10].
  12. “Agencies Scrub Web Sites of Sensitive Chemical Data: Government Debates Safety Versus Security,” Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post, October 4, 2001, p. A29; “U.S. Agencies Pull Sensitive Data Off Web,” Charles Ornstein and Deborah Schoch, Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2001; and “A New Cast of Hawks and Doves Debate Government Secrecy in War on Terrorism,” Miles Benson, Newhouse News Service, January 25, 2002.
  13. Examples of such policies and activities include a hazard reduction hierarchy developed by the Working Group on Community Right to Know, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization. Under this hierarchy, the priorities would be:
  • First, eliminating the possibility of a chemical fire, spill or airborne release, whenever feasible (for example, by substituting safer chemicals or non-chemical alternatives);
  • Second, reducing the likelihood of a chemical fire, spill or airborne release, whenever chemical hazards cannot be eliminated; (for example, by adding sensors, alarms, automatic shutoffs, or other controls);
  • Third, mitigating the potential consequences of an unanticipated chemical fire, spill or airborne release, whenever chemical hazards cannot be eliminated or controlled (for example by planning for emergencies and training and equipping the public health community to respond); and, 
  • Fourth, keeping unavoidably hazardous facilities away from places where people live, work, play, and learn (for example by establishing adequate buffer zones).

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