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Environmental and Occupational Health

Environmental and Occupational Health Right-to-Know Statutes

Government agencies have several programs that provide easy access to a wide range of data about environmental pollution, workplace hazards, and other risks in everyday life. The programs are based on the idea that the public has a “right to know” about any information held by the government. 

Unlike traditional government warnings, these programs do not tell you about harmful products or practices.  Nor do these programs require businesses to reduce the risks.  The only requirement is that corporations and other large organizations provide factual information at regular intervals about the health, safety, or environmental threats they create.   Numerous government websites, libraries, reading rooms, product labels, non-profit organizations, etc. make the information available to the public.

These and other public disclosure laws work by influencing the countless actions of workers, community residents, consumers, suppliers, investors and voters.   Examples abound as to how the information can be used to reduce environmental and occupational risks:

  • Employees can use Material Safety Data Sheets as well as Risk Management Plans to learn about the hazards of a specific chemical in their workplace and take steps to handle and store the chemical safely.  If the hazards are unacceptable, they can press facility management for safer substitutes. 

  • Community residents can access the Toxics Release Inventory to discover what pollutants are being emitted by the local industrial plant and compare it to businesses elsewhere to understand if the local facility is doing everything feasible to keep pollution levels low.  Similarly, Risk Management Plans can provide valuable information on what neighborhoods or businesses could be impacted by a chemical accident and whether sufficient steps are being taken to prevent spills.  Publicizing a problem at a plant can affect a company’s most cherished asset—its reputation. 

  • Prospective buyers can learn about potential lead paint in a building or whether a former industrial property is on a federal or state list for cleanup.  Armed with that information they can make informed decisions about their purchase.

The resources listed in the following charts provide some useful guidance and examples to follow.

Statute What's Covered Information Available and Limitations Where to get Information

1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act

(Food and Drug Administration)

Processed and packaged food • Ingredients (NOT INCLUDED: the pesticide residues, the bovine growth hormones commonly used for dairy cows, genetically engineered organisms, or the antibiotics commonly used in beef, pork, and poultry)

• Nutritional information
• Standardized definitions for “lite”, “fat free” and “healthy”
Food labels

1983 Federal Hazard Communication Standard

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Chemicals in workplaces Chemical names, potential health and safety risks, safety precautions, and more Labeling and
Material Safety Data Sheets (chemical information sheets)

1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986)

(Environmental Protection Agency)

Toxic chemicals released to the air, water or land from fixed facilities

Chemical names and amounts release each year to the air, water and land.  (Scorecard website also provides health data for most chemicals.)

A listing of 600 chemicals is required to be reported by specific business sectors, if a certain poundage of chemicals are released.  The data does not cover all polluting businesses or all toxic chemicals.

Toxic Release Inventory

Accessible by zip code from:
www.scorecard.org or from:

http://www.rtknet.org/ allows users to download data

1990 Clean Air Act Amendments– Risk Management Plans

(Environmental Protection Agency)

Impact of potential chemical accidents from industrial facilities Chemical names and potential risks, including the consequences to nearby communities of a major chemical accident.  Also describes accident prevention program at the facility.

Required to be reported to EPA at least every 5 years.

Public access to this information is provided through federal reading rooms in almost all states.

1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments

(Environmental Protection Agency and Local Water Systems)

Public drinking water suppliers Chemical (80 chemicals and agents), biological, and radiological contaminants for which EPA has established a standard. Required to be sent to customers annually by public drinking water suppliers.  Called  “Consumer Confidence Report” or Water Quality Report
(See: this link)

1986 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act / Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act

Most states also have rosters of contaminated properties (known as “brownfields”) locations of leaking underground fuel tanks that are not included on the federal Superfund priority list. 

Environmental Protection Agency

Soil in contaminated waste sites

All Superfund sites, by state, name of site, location, status, contaminants, area maps, and more


Formats vary by state, but are typically listed by location

Provided by the EPA via website


A link to state rosters is also on EPA’s website

Approximately half of the states now have laws requiring schools to notify parents if and when pesticides will be applied in schools
Pesticide applications in schools Pesticide names, times/types of applications, and potential health risks (some variability by state) Letters/flyers from the schools to the parents before the pesticides are applied

1992 Residential Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act

(Department of Housing and Urban Development)

Lead paint in homes Landlords and sellers must inform prospective buyers or renters of any known lead paint in the dwelling. 

Disclosure form is provided to buyer or renter as part of lease or purchase contract

More information about lead paint is available from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

2000 Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act

Environmental Protection Agency

Sewage contamination of beaches US EPA maintains an online database to inform the public about sewage contamination along coastal beaches.  The database list closings and other advisories for beaches along east and west coast and Great Lakes.

EPA has online data

Also provides contacts at state who may have more up-to-date information

Written by: Carol Andress and Lin Nelson.
Last revised: March 2005

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