This section describes the congressional mandates that established ATSDR and our responsibilities related to the PHA process.


Congress established ATSDR in 1980 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLAexternal icon), also known as the Superfund law. This law set up a fund to identify and clean up the nation’s hazardous waste sites. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)external icon and individual states regulate the investigation and cleanup of site-related contamination. The Superfund law requires ATSDR to assess the presence and nature of health hazards to communities living near Superfund sites, help prevent or reduce harmful exposures, and expand the knowledge base about the health effects that result from exposure to hazardous substances.

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA)external icon broadened ATSDR’s responsibilities in environmental public health. SARA expanded ATSDR’s role in the areas of PHA activities, toxicologic databases, information dissemination, and medical education.

CERCLA, as amended by SARA (104 [i][6][f]), requires that, at a minimum, ATSDR consider the following factors when evaluating the public health impact (or risk) associated with site exposures:

  • The nature and extent of contamination at a site
  • The demographics (size and susceptibility) of the site population
  • The exposure pathways that may exist at a site (i.e., how people come into contact with contaminants, such as in the water, air, or soil at the site)
  • Health effects and disease-related data associated with the levels of exposure at a site


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA)external icon  gives EPA the authority to manage hazardous waste storage, treatment, and disposal facilities. In 1984, amendments to RCRA authorized ATSDR to conduct PHA activities at these sites when requested by EPA, states, tribes, or individuals. ATSDR was also authorized to help EPA determine which substances should be regulated and the levels at which substances may pose a threat to human health.

Page last reviewed: April 14, 2022