The Good and the Bad of the Superfund Program

by Debra McNeil on March 24, 2014

The world today is in the midst of an environmental movement, in which humans are trying to restore the Earth to its natural state and reverse the adverse health effects caused by large-scale industrialization.  In the past, toxic chemicals like asbestos, lead, and PCBs were used limitlessly in construction, which resulted in high concentrations of toxins in some areas.  The areas with higher concentrations of toxins then experienced increased prevalence rates of cancer, infant morbidity, birth defects, and other health issues.  In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was implemented to target those areas, and created Superfunds—hazardous waste sites placed on a priority list to be cleaned.  More than three decades later these sites are still being cleaned, and the program is struggling to stay ahead and protect the communities in affected areas.

The first step of CERCLA was to place a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, thus allowing federal authority to govern the release of toxic substances.  This tax was collected, and within the first 5 years there was a pool of $1.6 billion dollars (hence, Superfund) with which the government could clean hazardous areas.  The next step of the program was to create a list of sites and prioritize them for long term clean up.  As of February 2014, there are 1319 total sites listed, and 1158 more that have finished construction.  Much work has been done to restore the environment and improve living conditions of affected communities, but it seems that for every finished Superfund site, there is another hazardous site waiting to be cleaned.

Superfund cleanups are expensive, and there are tens of thousands of sites that qualify for some kind of cleaning, making this a very expensive long-term project.  How, then, do we keep this project a top priority with ample funding?  It is important to focus on the fact that a cleaner environment will support a healthier community, which will bolster a stronger economy.  Libby, Montana, for example, is a Superfund site due to an excess of asbestos in residences, businesses, and a mine adjacent to the town.  A study was done on a cohort of Libby workers, and researchers found that the workers were significantly more likely to die from asbestosis, lung cancer, cancer of the pleura, and mesothelioma (Sullivan 2007) than their control counterparts.  These health risks are serious and will not go away on their own, and if left untreated the environment will move from harming the community to affecting a larger scale.  The deaths of those workers are injurious to their families, the Libby community, and the economy due to lost wages, reduced family income, and days missed at work. Premature deaths also cost the US healthcare system money because they are preventable diseases that must be treated, and the global economy suffers because a large portion of working adults become debilitated.  There is a chain of events that begins with the local environment and ends on a larger scale with economic consequences, so it is in the best interest of the government to protect communities and population health, and thus protect family welfare and economic prosperity.

The Superfund program has great intentions, but it needs to become more widespread and continue progressing.  There is copious data showing the connection between Superfund sites and increased prevalence of diseases, and there is also data showing that when the environment is cleaned of toxins, human health improves.  Armed with this knowledge, a more serious effort needs to be made to clean the known Superfund sites.  This project should be made a top priority, thus allowing everyone the right to a safe living environment.  Similarly to how a doctor cannot withhold treatment, the government should not be able to simply put dangerous sites on a wait list, and allow people’s health to deteriorate in the meantime.


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