The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

July 1, 2008 | Healthcare Risk, Quality, & Safety Guidance

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent cabinet-level agency charged with protecting the nation’s health and environment. Its headquarters in Washington, DC, sets national policy, writes regulations and guidance documents that implement and interpret the federal environmental statutes, and generally oversees enforcement and compliance activities of EPA’s 10 regional offices (see EPA Regional Offices). Each regional office is responsible for several states and/or U.S. territories. The staff in the regional offices prosecute violations of environmental statutes and regulations, provide technical assistance, oversee states that EPA has authorized to administer the federal enforcement programs (e.g., the wastewater permit program), administer federal grants, and perform many other duties. EPA also has 16 laboratories that research a variety of environmental matters.

EPA is the leading federal agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment. * EPA’s authority is outlined in more than 30 federal environmental laws and in several presidential executive orders.

_______________ * Other federal agencies and departments that implement statutes relating to environmental matters include the Department of the Interior, which regulates land and natural resource use; the Department of Transportation, which regulates transportation of hazardous and of infectious wastes; the Department of Energy, which regulates energy-related matters and radiation protection; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates the civilian use of nuclear materials; and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is charged with ensuring safe and healthy working conditions. _______________

Initially, EPA focused its enforcement and cleanup efforts on the most visible industrial and municipal sources of pollution. When EPA was created in 1970, sewage treatment plants were discharging raw sewage into the rivers, industries were emitting air pollutants that burned people’s lungs and caused paint to peel off buildings, and landfills were accepting all types of hazardous waste (HW) and simply burning or burying it. Therefore, during its first decade, EPA tended to direct most of its regulatory efforts toward enforcing environmental laws against the obvious “bad actors.” The environmental violations of hospitals (and the healthcare industry in general) seemed benign in comparison to corporations that discharged flammable wastes that literally set rivers on fire. While healthcare facilities were also covered by EPA regulations, EPA originally relied mostly on voluntary compliance and took few enforcement actions against hospitals or other healthcare facilities.

Over time, EPA (as well as m any environmental public interest groups) became aware that hospitals and other healthcare facilities contributed to environmental pollution. Perhaps this was first observed in the late 1980s, when medical waste began to wash up on beaches around the country. Congress ordered EPA to investigate the infectious/medical waste disposal problem. After several years of study and investigation, EPA decided not to regulate...

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