After bipartisan passage to improve the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 2016, asbestos was one of several initial chemicals that would come under review again. In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus established by more than a half century of research, it was widely anticipated that the TSCA review would finally result in a ban on the use of asbestos in the United States. Two years later, and a very different result is unfolding.
EPA proposed a “significant new use rule” for asbestos
On June 1, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt announced a proposed “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR) for asbestos. SNURs are a tool under the TSCA that mandate EPA approval when a chemical is used in a significantly new way. To hear former Administrator Pruitt state it, he took an unprecedented stand by requiring importers to receive EPA approval before importing or using asbestos in the manufacture of products.
A look inside the SNUR
A closer look, however, establishes a twofold problem posed by the SNUR which may undercut the EPA’s conclusions at the end of its three year TSCA review of asbestos.
First, the EPA could have used the 2016 TSCA overhaul – which began under Obama and has continued under Trump – to ban any new uses of asbestos. Instead, with the SNUR, the EPA has laid the groundwork to expressly allow new uses of asbestos after evaluation based on “risk evaluation, select studies and use of the best available science.”
Secondly, the way in which the EPA will evaluate that risk is problematic. In May 2018 , the EPA published a “Problem Formulation of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos” which the EPA will use in evaluating these new uses of asbestos. Importantly, the problem formulation will not include information from existing, or “legacy” uses of asbestos – all of the ways in which millions of Americans have been, and will continue to be, exposed to asbestos from existing asbestos products and asbestos in place. This approach will ignore decades of scientific research establishing an overwhelming scientific consensus about the health risks from the legacy uses of asbestos such as exposure to drywall joint compound, plaster, floor tiles, pipe covering and many other existing, in place asbestos products.
This may serve to severely limit the types of exposures the EPA will include in formulating the potential risk of new asbestos uses.
As reported by the New York Times, such limits on the EPA’s review will necessarily create a flawed analysis of the threat posed by asbestos under the EPA TSCA re-evaluation. “It is ridiculous”, said Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, former EPA scientist, speaking to the New York Times. “You can’t determine if there is an unreasonable risk without doing a comprehensive risk evaluation.”
EPA may allow new asbestos use
While the EPA’s re-review of asbestos is still in the second year of the three year process, the limitations the current administration have already placed on the review will likely result in an outcome that does not protect human health – the core mission of the agency. Instead, by not considering the existing, wide-body of scientific evidence concerning asbestos, the ultimate EPA conclusion will likely find lower levels of risk and as a result impose fewer restrictions or prohibitions. Hopes for a U.S. ban on asbestos – one of the most widely recognized human carcinogens – are sadly diminishing.