Right to Know

An industrial democracy requires well-informed citizens. The use of public information as a means of reducing harm from pollution evolved throughout the twentieth century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Insecticide Act of 1910 established mandatory content labeling for all products. Consumers remained the primary recipients of such information until pressure from unions and public interest groups led to the enactment of the Hazardous Communication Standard Regulations in 1983, administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These regulations required all private employers using hazardous substances to label containers in the workplace, to train employees in safe practices, and to provide readily available, action-oriented material safety data sheets (MSDS) for each controlled substance. Each MSDS explains health risks from exposure and provides step-by-step procedures for accident response.

Nine months after the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, an accidental release at a pesticide factory in West Virginia injured 150 people. It became readily apparent that communities near industrial sites were both ignorant about substances used in factories and poorly prepared for emergency response. In the 1986 reauthorization of the Superfund Act (SARA), the U.S. Congress added Title III, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). EPCRA requires states to establish local emergency response planning committees that include elected officials and representatives from emergency agencies, industry, the mass media, and the public. Companies using regulated substances must provide an inventory of materials to the local committee along with the corresponding MSDSs. A separate section of EPCRA requires facilities to annually provide states with a Toxic Release Report. These reports specify the quantity of toxic material released or disposed of and where it ends up (landfill, underground injection, air, water, and recycling). States forward these reports to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for analysis and public distribution in what is known as the annual Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), available on the Internet.

Citizens now have access to information regarding potentially harmful substances in the products they buy, those used in their workplace, and those released in their community. These data are used in making individual decisions about place of employment and residence, as well as schools. Since expenditures for operating each emergency planning committee are a local decision, citizens and community groups play a critical role in generating adequate support. Releases reported in TRI, except for emergency spills, are regulated by discharge permits. TRI can help reveal when the permits are being violated or government enforcement is lax. This may be the basis for a citizen lawsuit. The negative publicity associated with media coverage, coupled with the pressure exerted by well-organized and persistent community groups, has led many companies to reduce emissions well below legally permissible limits.

Numerous examples demonstrate the power of a well-informed public to create change. A Michigan-based nongovernment organization (NGO), the Ecology Center, has acted in conjunction with the Great Lakes Auto Pollution Alliance to work with industry to implement major reductions in toluene air releases, the source of noxious community odors. Combined with U.S. Census data on the population, TRI now plays a central role in "environmental justice" analyses of the distribution of pollution in low-income and minority communities. Since 1993, businesses in Canada have also been required to report similar releases. These data are available on the Internet as the Canadian National Pollution Release Inventory (NPRI). They play a critical role in local and regional environmental initiatives. For example, a Montréal NGO used NPRI to compare discharges from local refineries. It found one facility with double the benzene emissions of a similar facility. Public pressure led the refineries to voluntarily pledge a reduction in emissions.

The right to know (RTK) laws have led to significant increases in worker safety, the emergency preparedness of communities, and some major voluntary reductions in facility emissions. Citizens can obtain company inventory and MSDS information from their local emergency planning committee. Via the Internet they can access TRI and MSDS information from the EPA. Many environmental organizations also provide on the Internet TRI or NPRI information combined with additional analysis tools such as geographic information system maps. Users should be cautioned, however, about the limits of the data. Not all chemicals are regulated, and uses below specified quantities are exempt. Some facilities fail to meet the self-reporting requirements. A complete hazard assessment involves the analysis of releases, pathways (such as an air plume), human exposures, and dose–response relationship by population type. Most RTK information only includes estimates of annual source releases.



Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). SARA Title III, 42 U.S.C. 11001 et seq.

Hadden, Susan. (1989). A Citizen's Right to Know. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Internet Resources

Environment Canada. "National Pollutant Release Inventory." Available from http://www.ec.gc.ca/pdb .

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Toxic Release Inventory: Community Right to Know." Available from http://www.epa.gov/tri .

Wolf, Sidney. (1996). "Fear and Loathing about the Public Right to Know: The Surprising Success of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act." Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law 11(2):218–319. Also available from http://www.law.fsu/edu/journals .

John P. Felleman

By reclaiming parts from eleven million vehicles each year, automotive salvage yards in North America save both raw materials and millions of barrels of oil that would otherwise be used to manufacture new replacement parts. Municipal collection programs for latex paints have provided considerable savings in hazardous waste disposal fees while providing usable paints to nonprofit organizations. Many reuse activities such as thrift shops and rummage sales benefit charities and provide low-cost or free goods to those in need.

—Source: Reuse Development Organization (ReDo). Available from http://www.redo.org .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Right to Know forum