Superfund Sites - What Are They?

A location becomes a federal Superfund Site if it is determined to be heavily contaminated. There are potential health risks associated with Superfunds and clear impacts to property value if your property is within a 3-mile radius of a problem area while it remains significantly contaminated.


Lauren Chambliss

May 7, 2021 • Updated Mar 17, 2022 • 5 min read
Industrial Hazards

Find Superfund sites and other environmental hazards near you here

Overview#

Following a series of outbreaks of illness and disease in people living near hazardous waste sites, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund, in 1980. Created in response to several highly-publicized events, including Love Canal, NY — where a State of Emergency was declared after an unusual increase in skin rashes, miscarriages, and birth defects — and Elizabeth, NJ — where a chemical-waste explosion sent a 200-foot fireball of corrosive smoke and ash over densely populated neighborhoods — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today oversees nearly 1200 Superfund sites. More than 50 million Americans live within a few miles of one. The Superfund list includes abandoned factories, mining operations, toxic and radioactive waste dumps and other sites with uncontained materials deemed dangerous to the environment and people. The EPA has completed cleanup of hundreds of Superfund sites, including some of the most hazardous and those close to big cites. But hundreds remain in various stages of containment and the EPA is currently proposing to add 50 new sites to the list.

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There are potential health risks associated with Superfunds generally — that is why they are on the list — and clear impacts to property value if your home or property is within a 3-mile radius of a problem area. The good news is that once cleanup occurs, health outcomes and property values recover significantly, according to studies.

Your Home and Superfunds#

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Health and Safety#

Assessing your possible health risk from living near a Superfund site is complicated. During visible environmental emergencies, such as poisonous spills into waterways, or fires and explosions, the health risk is usually immediate, as is the official response. At other sites, the health effects of contamination, such as cancer or birth defects, can be less clear and long term. Superfund cleanup actions address both short and longer-term risks. The best place to start to understand your specific risk is the EPA Superfund website, which contains site-by-site information about all priority locations. Just because you live near a site does not mean you are in actual danger of exposure. The EPA says it has contained the hazardous materials in most sites to the point where there is no significant risk of human exposure. In some situations, such as where local water supplies are compromised, the EPA supplies bottled drinking water to residents.

However, some scientists have questioned whether the EPA’s risk assessment is thorough enough to rule out the possibility of exposure even after clean-up or containment.

One of the main concerns about exposure to Superfund toxins is the potential impact on infants and young children. For example, a 2011 study found that pregnant women living very close to an active site had babies with a 20-25% higher risk of birth defects before cleanup.

Another study of babies born near a mining-related Superfund site found higher levels of arsenic and lower birthweights. In New Jersey, there is evidence that children exposed to chromium waste had higher rates of cancer. However, it is important to note that not all studies have found a link between proximity to a site and health risk for infants or children. Other factors, including income and overall family health, may also play a role.

The pathways to human exposure are most often contaminated soil or groundwater, but air-borne particulates carried on the wind can also pose a risk. Your chance of exposure varies from none to potentially harmful and where your home falls on that scale will depend on many factors, including how close you are to the site, the chemical or contaminant involved, the possible pathways of exposure, and the stage of cleanup. Sometimes the EPA initiates a project even if they find very little or no risk to human health, as is the case with a recent Superfund listing of a cluster of mining operations in Colorado.

Property Values#

Not surprisingly, being within three miles of an existing Superfund site, or a proposed new one, hurts property values. The closer you get, the bigger the negative impact. However, property values are typically already lower before the EPA steps in because people perceive there is a risk when living near an abandoned warehouse, mining pit, factory or landfill. In some communities devastated by a catastrophic event, such as a large chemical spill or an explosion, there are reports it can be hard to get a mortgage because of insurers’ concerns about property values.

Once cleanup is complete home values tend to bounce back significantly. EPA officials cite a comprehensive study that shows property values increased 18-24% when a site is delisted from Superfund after contaminants are contained or removed. After cleanup, higher-priced homes rose about 18% in value, while lower-value homes jumped slightly more than 24%, according to the widely quoted report. Researchers speculate the increase is strongest for homes at the lower end because poorer neighborhoods tend to be closer to sites, so they see more advantages when the EPA says the work is done.

What You Can Do#

If your home is close to a Superfund site, you probably are already aware of what you can do to mitigate exposure because of the very public nature of both the initial problem and the EPA cleanup. The most important thing you can do is find out what kind of hazardous or chemical material is at the site and then take steps to insulate your family or business from any exposure. Start with the EPA Superfund website and then check with your doctor or local officials so that you thoroughly understand the possible pathways of exposure and what you can do to avoid them. If you are concerned, children can be tested for exposure to lead, arsenic and other poisons by a doctor. There are also home tests for several of the most common contaminants in your drinking water.

AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.

Sources#

Find information for climate, natural, and environmental hazards in the United States with a free AreaHub report. In just a few seconds, access data about 18 potential dangers in your area, like severe floods, toxic waste sites and more.

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