Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Quality of work


ATSDR prides itself on using "the best science." And in 2003, BBC News described ATSDR as "widely regarded as the world's leading agency on public health and the environment."

However, ATSDR has also been the focus of scrutiny from Congress and other groups. Much of the criticism is due to the fact that the agency has been overtasked yet understaffed and underfunded for much of its history.

  • In August 1991, the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) published a report that faulted the quality of ATSDR's original public health assessments and questioned their usefulness. It also placed part of the blame on the deadlines and requirements that Congress imposed with SARA: "SARAŇs requirement that ATSDR quickly assess 951 Superfund sites came at a time when the agency was still relatively new and ... not staffed or organized for the job." The report also noted that after meeting the SARA deadline, ATSDR was able to increase the rigor of its public health assessments.
  • In May 1992, the Environmental Health Network and the National Toxics Campaign Fund published "Inconclusive by Design," a report which noted structural limitations to the work of CDC and ATSDR.
  • In April 2008, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing on formaldehyde exposures in trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided as temporary housing to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A report based on the hearing, issued by the subcommittee's Democratic majority staff in September 2008, noted shortcomings in the agency’s original health consultation that examined the health risks of formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers.
  • In March 2009, the Democratic majority staff of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight issued another report on ATSDR, which called for leadership changes within the agency. The report stated: "Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation. Instead, they deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate concerns and health considerations of local communities and well respected scientists and medical professionals.
  • In the March 12, 2009, congressional hearing, the subcommittee chairman, Congressman Brad Miller, characterized ATSDR as keen to "please industries and government agencies" and referred to ATSDR's reports as "jackleg assessments saying 'not to worry.'" In defense of ATSDR's work, director Howard Frumkin noted that ATSDR's staff has declined from 500 to about 300, and that often communities expect "definitive answers about the links between exposures and illnesses," but expectations can be unmet due to scientific uncertainty. However, Dr. Frumkin also acknowledged the possibility that some assessments did not use the best data or monitoring techniques.

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