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Health Effects from Hazardous Waste Sites.

Health Effects from Hazardous Waste Sites Reviewer: Martin T. Katzman, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

One of the most costly public policies aimed at reducing risks to human health and the environment is the Superfund program. When this program was originally established in 1980, Congress authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to spend up to $1.7 billion dollars within five years to clean up several hundred hazardous waste sites. When the program was reauthorized in 1986, the sum was raised to $8.5 billion over the next five years. These figures are only the public costs. Chemical and insurance industry experts have estimated that privately borne cleanup costs on the order of $100 billion will be incurred over the next few decades.

Superfund extends traditional concepts of joint and several liability to firms that did not act in concert and imposes retroactive liability on parties defined as "generators" of hazardous waste. The new tort concepts are especially interesting because they have forced the courts to define, in novel ways, the terms "sudden and accidental" in interpreting the pollution exclusion clause in Comprehensive General Liability contracts and to blur the line between first-party and third-party damages. Indeed, Superfund has unleashed greater expenditures on litigation than on cleanup. This litigation involves suits between the EPA and generators, between generators and their insurers, and among insurers over cleanup costs. (In comparison there has been little litigation yet about personal injury claims from these sites.) As a consequence of uncertainties about legal rules and insurance contracts, Superfund has virtually devastated the insurability of pollution liabilities. Ironically, Superfund intended to employ compulsory liability insurance as a tool for pricing dangerous activities out of the market.

Superfund was passed in the aftermatch of the Love Canal incident. Briefly, an old chemical waste dump was uncovered during the development of a housing project, and chemicals eventually leaked into the surrounding area. Media attention to citizen reports of abnormally high miscarriages and skin lessions raised national fears of the widespread existence of Love Canals in everyone's backyard.

Has Superfund succeeded as a risk management policy? To answer this question, one needs to know which chemicals are present and the volume of these chemicals at hazardous waste sites; what are the pathways by which these chemicals can reach the public; what is the likely level of public exposure to these chemicals; and what harm is likely to result from this level of exposure. The answers to these questions are additionally useful because, under the recent Superfund Reauthorization Act, EPA is mandated to communicate to the affected public the degree of risk to which they are exposed.

Taking a giant step in dealing with these questions, this volume includes papers presented at a conference on environmental epidemiology held in 1983 under the auspices of EPA, plus one commissioned paper. At the outset the editors state that, "assessing the adverse human health effects of chemical exposure from waste disposal sites . . . is at best difficult."

Comprising one third of the book, a paper by Marsh and Caplan provides an excellent overview of the problems of developing actuarial data about exposures and health outcomes: few individuals come into contact with chemicals at any site; there is little direct data on chemical exposures; the toxicology (dose-response function) is poorly understood; the manifestation of chronic injury is delayed; and the resulting illnesses may resemble those caused by other factors. These two biostatisticians suggest methods of accumulating actuarial data in face of these difficulties, which should be of great interest to the general reader of the JRI.

A chapter on risk perception provides an interesting historic perspective. Three technical chapters focus on each step in risk assessment: measuring the volume of pollutants, identifying the pathways of human contact, and biological monitoring of human exposure. A chapter on the limitations of epidemiology by Schneiderman attempts to estimate future losses from industrial formaldehyde exposures.

The volume concludes with four case studies of human exposure to toxic waste facilities. Exposure may affect birth weight, childhood height, sensitivity to illnesses, allergies, learning disabilities, and hyperactivity. This section as well as a general discussion of results for assessing health risks have important insurance implications (i.e. defining what class of losses are compensable). The increasing skill of epidemiologists in measuring subtle injuries may have an affect on jury awards, and hence on liability insurance.
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Author:Katzman, Martin T.
Publication:Journal of Risk and Insurance
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:725
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