Part of our modern heritage is the increasing volume of waste created by all industrial societies. There also is an unprecedented concern over the potential consequences for public health and the environment caused by exposure to wastes that are deemed hazardous under a variety of regulatory regimes. Since the earliest days of industrialization, substantial volumes of wastes have been produced and sometimes disposed of in ways that could create problems for later generations. In the U.S. more than 6 billion tons of waste is produced annually—nearly 50,000 pounds per person (OTA, 1989). Some analyses indicate that in the U.S. racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than are non-minorities to live in areas where abandoned hazardous-waste dumps or operating waste disposal facilities are located (Bullard, 1990). One study noted that in communities with two or more commercial waste disposal facilities, the average minority percentage of the population was more than three times that of communities without such facilities (Commission for Racial Justice, 1987).
In many industrial countries, a number of highly publicized episodes of pollution have made it clear that pollutants can migrate in complex and not completely understood ways. Accordingly, a variety of laws now require that public policy should provide for better waste disposal practices. The legacy of past practices, however, provides a series of difficult challenges to policy makers and scientists regarding how to analyze the public health and environmental effects of old methods of disposal, how to set appropriate policies to reduce harm in the future, and how much resources should be devoted to these issues.
At the request of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the National Research Council (NRC) convened the Committee on Environmental Epidemiology to review current knowledge of the human health effects caused by exposure to hazardous-waste sites and to suggest how to improve the scientific bases for evaluating the effects of environmental pollution on public health, including specifically the conduct of health assessments at Superfund sites. With additional support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Committee also is examining the role of state health departments in generating relevant information on this topic. This first report of the committee reviews and assesses the published scientific literature on health effects that could be linked with exposure to hazardous-waste disposal sites, and makes recommendations about major data gaps that need to be filled as scientists go on to answer important questions in the field.
A second report of the committee will identify research opportuni-