Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // Futures // 2FUT1

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Community Risks: Extension's Future Role


J. David Deshler
Associate Professor
Extension, Continuing and Adult Education
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Chemicals and Community Risks

Future society will depend more rather than less on chemicals. Thus, the future quality of our lives requires preventing chemically induced hazards to health and safety. Today, there are an estimated 60,000 different chemicals used in the workplace, with the number increasing rapidly every year. Our modern way of life has become dependent on chemicals. Many are hazards to human health, while some threaten the sustainability of life on our planet.

Chemicals can get into the environment many ways, both deliberately and accidentally. Adverse health effects can be short-term-acute or long-term-delayed. What we don't know about their presence can hurt us. We have a right to know about chemicals that may harm us in our environment, both now and in the future. This article is about what Extension can do in the future to assure that right.

History of Community Right-to-Know Legislation

In the mid-1970s, the term right-to-know referred to freedom of the press and to citizen access to information about government activities. In the 1980s, the term was appropriated by the labor movement, which insisted that employees had a right-to-know about substances in the workplace that pose long-term hazards to health. Also included in the concept was the right to information about each worker's exposure to such substances. The federal government responded to labor concerns with legislation on Hazard Communication Standards (HCS). This legislation, however, didn't cover a community's right-to-know about the presence of chemicals being stored, used, or emitted into the environment. In 1981, Philadelphia became the first city to legislate a citizen's right-to-know law that covered both workers and the community. Cincinnati followed, along with several California cities. In 1983, New Jersey became the first state to pass right-to-know legislation covering communities. Massachusetts followed in 1985. The Union Carbide chemical disaster at Bhopal, India, which focused worldwide attention on chemical risks to whole communities, prompted Congress to debate the federal role in community right-to-know legislation. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was passed on October 17, 1986. This legislation was embodied in Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA).

Purposes of Right-to-Know Legislation

It's likely Congress intended that the law contribute to its ongoing effort to reduce environmental risks that citizens face. One way to do this is through assuring access to data that have seldom been public before - data about private facilities' chemical inventories, storage practices, transportation routes, and "hazard analysis," as well as the emissions inventories for manufacturing facilities. The assumption behind the legislation is that citizens, using right-to-know information, could act to protect themselves and plan for emergency situations. The legislation set forth reporting requirements for lists of chemicals above certain threshold quantities. It set rules for the establishment of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) that are to give public notice of its activities, provide procedures for handling public requests for information, and develop an emergency response plan. State emergency response commissions also were to become active in the use of these data.

What does the future hold for the implementation of the law? Scenarios vary from a minimal basic vision to one that empowers citizens in regard to government and industry. Hadden describes these scenarios in Table 1.1

The "Basic" scenario is being implemented. Early in 1988, EPA contacted 42 states about the formation of Local Emergency Planning Committees. At that time, 2,162 LEPCs had been formed out of 3,555 counties. Impediments included lack of funding, lack of awareness of the law, and general lack of incentive and direction. It's unlikely that the "Better Decision Making" or the "After the Balance of Power" scenarios will become a reality unless additional resources are provided for access to data, research on effects of chemicals, and education of citizens to interpret these data.

What Do Citizens Want to Know?

Citizens in the community will want to know the answers to questions ranging from the purely factual to the political - what kinds of action can we take? Hadden lists the following questions as typical of the citizen perspective:

  • What hazardous substances are present in my community and in what amounts?
  • Are these substances being released into the environment? Have I been exposed?
  • If hazardous substances are released into the environment, by what route and at what level might I be exposed?
  • Do these exposures affect my health or that of my family?
  • Alternatively, if I have a symptom, what substances might be causing it?
  • Are the exposures acceptable in light of other considerations?
  • If they aren't acceptable, are there any ways these exposures can be reduced?
  • If emissions can be reduced, should we ask the facility to do this? How can we persuade them?2

Can citizens get answers to these questions from the data being collected? To date, very few citizens have exercised the right to know as it applies to hazardous chemicals, and fewer still have taken action based on that information. There are many reasons for this:

1. Data have been unavailable except in a few states and cities with right-to-know laws that predate the federal law.
2. Even when the data have been collected, ensuring that they're accessible is still difficult.
3. Even when accessible, understanding the data isn't always easy.
4. Sometimes the data are divided up among two or more government agencies.

In addition, there are problems of information storage and retrieval that could theoretically be solved with the application of new computer approaches. The new hazard categories, moreover, are so broad that they aren't useful for emergency responders. The information available to citizens through the legislation consists, at best, of a list of chemicals, amounts, and methods of storage along with a material safety data sheet of unknown quality describing possible health effects, safety measures, and physical and chemical properties of the substance. Waste treatment and disposal methods for each waste stream, and the quantity of the chemical entering each environmental medium annually is also noted on the data sheets.3

At worst, the citizen knows only the names of chemicals present (from the set of Material Safety Data Sheets) or how many pounds of all the chemicals presenting a particular hazard are stored or used in a location. You could argue that citizens with these data are still powerless because they've been buried in raw uninterpreted data. The complexity and apparent redundancy of the reports has also angered many of those required to report and has given the right-to-know legislation a reputation for government heavy-handedness that has plagued Title III.

Table 1: Tentative typology of right-to-know.

Type Purpose Government role
Basic Ensure that citizens can find
out about chemicals.
Ensure data are created
and available.
Reduce risks from chemicals
preferably through voluntary
industry action, but also by
government if necessary.
Regulators use information
to create new standards or
enforce existing ones if
industry fails to police itself.
Better Allow citizens to participate
in decision making making
decisions about appropriate
levels of hazardous materials
in the community.
Provide citizens with analyzed
data, methods for manipulating
and interpreting data.
Alter balance
of power
Empower citizens with respect
big government, industry.
Provide citizens with analyzed
data, means of participating.

What Can Be Done?

Hadden suggests that the reporting could be made less redundant and clearer.4 Better approaches to electronic storage and access are possible and can be implemented with the cooperation of the various governmental bodies. Information on the potential health hazards of many chemicals, especially long-term, low-level exposure, aren't known. Additional research is required and should be accelerated because of the rapid addition of new industrial-use chemicals. Who should pay for this research is a political issue. Above all, however, is the need for citizen education.

Many experts believe that the problem of nonexperts trying to interpret uncertain data is so serious that the only reasonable response is to discourage forms of right-to-know that require citizens to understand and act on evidence of health effects from laboratory studies. Instead, they argue, right-to-know data should be used primarily by experts within and outside industry to reduce risks. Others take a different tack, arguing that right-to-know will require extensive efforts at educating citizens to interpret and understand both the strengths and the limitations of scientific data.5

At present, the government has no plans to undertake this educational role in spite of increasing demands to make the information it provides easier to use and better. Nongovernmental environmental groups may increase their efforts in the future. However, there are virtually no institutions through which citizens may meet in an orderly systematic way with representatives of the private sector. How to build such institutions and provide technical education is a central question raised by the right-to-know legislation.6

Vision of Extension's Role

Extension has a long history of helping citizens interpret agricultural research data. It has an impressive record of reducing the gap between technology and people's concerns. It knows the difference between mere dissemination of information and education. It has provided a human face to technical education among citizens and experts. Extension has access to the research resources of the land-grant universities. In the future, Extension could help citizens:

1. Gain access to technical right-to-know information through Local Emergency Planning Committees, perhaps even help these committees function.
2. Interpret the strengths and limitations of the data and implications for risk and safety.
3. Obtain access to funds available for expertise so citizen groups can be equal participants in procedures that require considerable technical or legal expertise. (Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act can provide these funds.)
4. Facilitate dialogue with both governmental and private sectors in understanding and reducing chemical risk.
5. Learn processes for undertaking public policy education on specific issues.7

To undertake this role, Extension should encourage land-grant universities to provide strong faculty research in epidemiology and toxicology. Some field staff would need some toxicology background, should be trained in public policy education processes, and be familiar with the right-to-know procedures.

Right-to-know is only the most recent, but hardly the first, public policy to require public judgments about risks accompanied with the quandary posed by incomplete or uncertain scientific information. Extension has an unparalleled opportunity to educate both urban and rural citizens in a global and local problem that has crucial consequences to health, safety, and sustainability of life.


1. S. G. Hadden, A Citizen's Right to Know: Risk Communication and Public Policy (San Francisco, California: Westview Press, 1989), p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 14.

3. Ibid., pp. 35-37.

4. Ibid., pp. 93-112.

5. Ibid., p. 120.

6. Ibid., p. 148.

7. V. House and A. Young, Working with Our Publics-Module 6: Education for Public Decisions (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service and the Department of Adult and Community College Education, North Carolina State University, 1988).