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EPA and Homeland Security

Message from Deborah Y. Dietrich,
EPA Associate Administrator for Homeland Security

Deborah Y. Dietrich

EPA's homeland security program is rooted in the traditional functions that decades of legislation have assigned to EPA. Among those are: response to oil and hazardous materials releases, spill prevention and control, waste management, air quality protection, drinking water and wastewater regulation, pesticide management, radiation protection, and of course, research and development to address the questions that we need to answer in order to better protect human health and the environment. Following the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax incidents in 2001, these functions took on new importance and urgency as the Agency confronted a unique suite of threats and hazards. 

EPA's roles and responsibilities in homeland security are complex and inter-connected.  Today’s efforts are shaped by the need to respond to multiple incidents with the potential for substantial environmental and public health impacts—whether they are acts of terrorism, large-scale accidents, or natural disasters.  In order to prepare, researchers must understand the nature of these hazards and threats, and must devise, adapt and re-tool approaches, methods and technologies in order to characterize the extent and impacts of a different set of chemical, biological or radiological contaminants; ones that EPA has traditionally not had to deal with. 

EPA’s risk assessments must be based on relevant assumptions about civilian populations at risk, as well as the virulence or toxicity, nature, and length of exposure to these contaminants.   Historically, EPA risk assessments dealt mostly with long-term exposures to low-level environmental pollutants.

In 2001 EPA was presented with a different set of analytical issues. Before the Amerithrax incident (when letters laced with anthrax spores began appearing in the mail in the worst biological attack in U.S. history), anthrax had been thought of as a military bio-weapon. Defense Department researchers based their assessments of anthrax exposures on a young and healthy military population.  EPA and other health protection partners realized that in the event of a widespread anthrax attack, part of their responsibility would be to assure that all vulnerable segments of the U.S. population, including children, elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals were considered.  If, for example, the residents of a contaminated area want to know whether it is safe for them to return home to retrieve their personal belongings before the area has been completely decontaminated, EPA needs to assess whether exposures to chemical, biological or radiological contaminants over a short-term period might be harmful.

Given the economic imperative to restore the use of water supplies, buildings, transportation, and public areas, as rapidly as possible, new approaches and tests were needed to find effective ways for them to be safely decontaminated. Once clean-up has been completed and facilities have been returned to their intended use, potentially contaminated debris and waste need to be safely disposed of and managed.

In addition to its role in emergency response, EPA plays an important role in the protection of drinking water and wastewater systems.  The Agency’s historical role in protecting drinking water led to EPA’s designation as the federal lead for water infrastructure protection under the National Infrastructure Protection Plan.  The Agency also received mandates under several statutes and Presidential directives over the years.  For example, under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, EPA’s Office of Water works with utilities to implement prevention strategies and to prepare for potential attacks on both drinking water and wastewater systems. .

Beginning in 2002, EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program worked with the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, other federal agencies and external stakeholders to advance the science of: detecting chemical, biological and radiological contaminants; characterizing the extent and nature of contamination; and assessing the risks to all Americans and the nation’s water infrastructure posed by these contaminants. The program has tested and evaluated the effectiveness of early warning systems and decontamination technologies, developed tools to guide waste disposal decision making, and has helped to develop interim guidance levels for emergency response and recovery actions. Much has been accomplished over the past ten years, yet more work is needed in researching the remaining unknowns.

Scientific uncertainties will continue to challenge the EPA’s ability to prepare for and respond to major emergency events. Agency scientists and engineers continue to ensure that decision makers and field responders have the best available science and tools to do their jobs. EPA seeks to advance and promote scientific research and technological innovation in order to enhance the Agency’s and our federal, state, tribal, and local partners’ abilities to protect public health and the environment, as well as strengthen community resilience.  EPA will continue to address the knowledge and technology gaps for the threats that face us.

The Administrator’s commitment to sound science as the basis for Agency decisions.  That commitment is the foundation of EPA’s homeland security program and is key to strengthening community resiliency.

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