Is the EPA allowing asbestos again? Maybe. But there’s still time to act. The proposed EPA rule that is at the center of this firestorm is available for public comment until August 10.
Before we get to the current controversy, let’s review how we got here.
There’s Never Been an Asbestos Ban?
The undisputed recognition of asbestos as a killer lead OSHA to regulate asbestos in 1972. Millions of American lives were at stake. OSHA regulation made a real impact and saved lives by limiting asbestos exposure in the work place. In turn, many asbestos containing products could no longer be used in a way that complied with OSHA regulations. So, a steep decline in the manufacture of asbestos products ensued.
In 1989, the EPA followed up with what was to be the final blow – a complete ban on asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Weaknesses in TSCA, however, led to an appellate court overturning the ban. So, while Europe banned asbestos in the mid 1990s, there’s never been an outright ban on the use of asbestos in the United States. We’ve had restrictions on the deadly fiber, but no complete ban.
A New Hope
Finally, in 2016, a bipartisan effort in Congress led to a reformed TSCA giving the EPA new tools to review thousands of chemicals. Asbestos, the EPA announced in the closing days of the Obama administration, was one of the first ten chemicals to be reviewed under the new TSCA. Just two years ago, the scientific community widely believed an asbestos ban in the United States was finally in sight.
EPA Under Trump Administration
TSCA, however, requires a three year review period. Thus, the majority of the TSCA asbestos review is now happening under President Trump’s EPA. And that’s where things have taken an unexpected turn. The EPA’s approach involves a three-fold problem.
First, on June 1st, the EPA announced a “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR) – a proposed framework that will create opportunities for “new uses” of asbestos. The EPA insists it took unprecedented action by requiring EPA approval before manufacturers can import or use asbestos in the manufacture of products. But when there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, why create a system in which the EPA can now approve new uses of this deadly fiber? Banning asbestos would be unprecedented action – not creating a system to actually approve of new asbestos use.
Second, in May 2018, the EPA published a “Problem Formulation of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos.” The document lays out the EPA’s planned approach for evaluating new uses of asbestos and what to consider as part of the three year TSCA asbestos review. The problem with the Problem Formulation: the EPA won’t consider pre-existing information on the health consequences of legacy uses of asbestos, such as building materials that remain in place across America. Instead, the agency will focus on “new uses for manufacture, processing or distribution is intended, known to be occurring, or reasonably foreseen.”
This will severely limit the types of exposures the EPA will include in formulating the risk of new asbestos uses. As a result – the EPA most likely will find lower levels of risk and will likely impose fewer restrictions.
Finally, the EPA recently proposed a “scientific transparency” rule which sounds great, but would prohibit the agency from considering most large scale, peer-reviewed medical research concerning the health consequences of the substances we breathe, eat and drink.
Combine all of these issues and it’s clear the EPA under the Trump administration has no plans to ban asbestos. In fact, if the SNUR rule takes effect, the EPA will have a framework to approve new asbestos uses. Existing OSHA regulations and the specter of asbestos legal liabilities will probably prevent very many new uses of asbestos from becoming a reality, but there shouldn’t be any.
The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. The proposed asbestos SNUR does neither. A U.S. ban on asbestos would.
An even broader question: if the EPA is taking such tepid measures with an undisputed human carcinogen like asbestos, what will the agency do with the thousands of lesser known chemicals still to be reviewed?