Despite significant reforms to state, tribal and local emergency laws over the past decade, regional legal responses to public health emergencies continue to be disparate and, at times, conflicting. Modern public health legal reforms offer an array of legal options for lawmakers and policy-makers, but do not always prescribe specific actions that legal and public health practitioners must take during emergencies. Rather, emergency laws generally present a menu of legal choices, often with little guidance for leaders making key decisions. This makes it challenging for public health leaders to ensure that the decisions they make during health emergencies– on issues including surge capacity, quickly spreading infectious diseases and allocation of scarce resources– fall within traditional legal norms.
In late 2015 and early 2016, a public health crisis involving contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, came to light. This horrible tragedy involves Flint residents’ exposure to toxic levels of lead in their drinking water over a prolonged period of time as well as a spike in Legionellosis after the city changed its primary water source to the Flint River in April 2014. This table summarizes legal theories underlying a number of civil lawsuits and other actions arising from the Flint water crisis.
Thursday, July 21 | 2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. ET. This webinar will explore vector control in the time of Zika. Speakers will provide an overview of the public health problem posed by Zika and will offer information on how law and policy can be used to prevent the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika. Register.
Lead poisoning affects people of all ages. Children and pregnant women who suffer from prolonged lead exposure are especially at risk for serious lifelong health and socioeconomic consequences. Lead poisoning is often irreversible and policymakers have the opportunity to increase measures to mitigate the effects of lead poisoning.
The Network was contacted by a public health official in Arizona about the legal authority that state (or local) government has to abate public health nuisances, specifically related to potential breeding sites for disease-carrying mosquitoes. In Arizona, health authorities can order the removal or destruction of a public health nuisance in two primary ways, and specific abatement powers and processes may be altered pursuant to formal declarations of emergency or public health emergency.
Legal authorities vary across states, tribal governments and localities during declared emergencies. As seen during the 2009-2010 H1N1 outbreak, jurisdictions may take divergent legal approaches in their responses to national or regional public health threats. Conflicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions further complicate key decisions on when or how to respond.
Public health officials may face many critical legal and policy decisions during public health emergencies, including:
The Network for Public Health Law can provide legal guidance, training and support to address these and other legal and policy issues in emergency preparedness. These issues may be addressed during non-emergencies through advance planning and education, innovative exercises and other training efforts. During emergency declarations, the Network can provide real-time legal guidance to help public health leaders as they respond and make critical decisions with potential legal ramifications.
For legal technical assistance and support with emergency legal preparedness and response:
You can also call your region to get legal assistance at:
The Network will not share your contact information with external parties without consent.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, please consult specific legal counsel. For more information on the type of legal assistance the Network can provide, please see frequently asked questions.