Environmental toxicology laws in the U.S.

Feature image: EPA is responsible for implementing most of the environmental protection laws in the United States (Image source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Many environmental toxicology laws (and laws pertaining to it) were passed in the United States in the last 100 years. I have listed the major ones with a short description of what they state. While many of these laws were modified after passage, I have only provided the broad decades in which they were first enacted. You will notice that the majority of laws were passed in the 1960 and 1970s. This is not surprising as this is when the modern-day environmental movement began.

In the US, the major agencies that regulate laws related to chemicals, health, and the environment are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Before 1960s (alphabetical)

Administrative Procedures Act (APA): It governs the procedures that U.S. federal agencies must follow to propose and establish regulations and regulatory decisions. Citizens have judiciary oversight over all agency actions and federal agencies should provide adequate opportunities for public participation. An agency’s decision-making process must be transparent, well documented, and reasonable based on available information and statutes.

Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA): The FDA oversees the safety of food, food additives, drugs, medical devices and cosmetics. For pesticides applied on food crops and present in food, the EPA must set maximum residue limit (“tolerance”) to ensure ‘reasonable certainty of no harm’ from aggregate exposure to a pesticide (i.e., exposure from food, water, and residence). EPA only estimates risks and does not take into account the benefits of pesticide use. Also see Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA).

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA): The USDA was first responsible for regulating pesticides. This job was handed over to the EPA in 1972. FIFRA states all pesticides must be registered with the EPA before sale, labels must comply with law, and pesticide use should not cause ‘unreasonable adverse effects to humans or the environment’. EPA takes into account the economic, social, and environmental costs (risks) and benefits of pesticide use. Also see Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA).

Lacey Act: Prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. It also prohibits importation and transportation of species that are “injurious to humans, to the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, or to wildlife or wildlife resources”.

Public Health Service Act (PHSA): It authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to respond to public health emergencies and to also to determine if a public health emergency exists. The law also tasks FDA with ensuring the safety, purity, and potency of biological products.

1960 and 1970s (alphabetical)

Clean Air Act (CAA): Regulates emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Sets air quality standards that reflect the latest scientific information and that protects public health with an adequate margin of safety. The Act is estimated to have prevented millions of health issues (from asthma to mortality) in three decades.

Clean Water Act (CWA): Makes it illegal for industries, municipals and other facilities to discharge pollutants into water bodies without a permit. It sets water quality standards to protect public health and the environment from reasonably anticipated adverse effects.

Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA): Established the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to develop safety standards for consumer products and to recall or ban products that pose unreasonable risks of injury or death to consumers.

Endangered Species Act (ESA): Provides a program for conservation of threatened and endangered species (plants and animals) and their habitats. All federal agencies must ensure their actions do not harm listed species. If they believe their actions (like approval of a pesticide) may affect listed species, they should consult with the USFWS or NMFS.

Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA): Also known as Ocean Dumping Act as it regulates the dumping of certain materials – that can adversely affect humans or the marine environment- into the ocean.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): All branches of government must consider the environment and society before taking any major action that affects the environment/society.

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA): Established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set and enforce safety and health standards at the workplace.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): Tasked EPA with creating framework for safe management, cleanup, transport, and disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste at facilities that are currently in use.

Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA): Protects the quality of public drinking water sources (both surface and ground water). Maximum contaminant levels are set for man-made and naturally-occurring chemicals in drinking water based on chemical risks and the costs of water treatment. The law does not apply to private wells serving less than 25 people.

Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): Regulates the production, importation, use, and disposal of all chemicals excluding those used in pesticides, food, drugs and cosmetics (as they are governed by other laws). Chemical substances and mixtures should not present unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. Following a 2016 amendment, the burden of proof is on manufacturing companies to prove a chemical is safe. Safety assessment is only risk-based but, during the risk management stage, benefits of the chemical are taken into account.

After 1970s (alphabetical)

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA): Also known as Superfund Law. It is focused on the management and remediation of hazardous substances in abandoned and non-operating sites. It complements RCRA. Prior to 1995, most of the cleanup costs were footed by the polluting parties.

Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA): It modified FFDCA and FIFRA. It says that EPA should re-evaluate pesticide registrations every 15 years, that pesticides should be screened for their cumulative effects on the endocrine system, that manufacturers provide data on active and inert ingredients, and that safety factors must be incorporated during risk estimation to specifically protect children.

Information Quality Act (IQA): Federal agencies are required to publish their guidelines for information quality and peer reviews. They must also employ sound science in making regulations and disseminating information. People and companies can challenge government information they believe to be inaccurate.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA): Establishes a program for the safe disposal of highly radioactive waste. Standards must be developed for protection of the general environment from offsite releases of radioactive materials.

Oil Pollution Act (OPA): Creates framework for preventing and responding to catastrophic oil spills. It assigns liability for the cost of cleanup and damage.


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