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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the midst of a several years long process to investigate ten dangerous chemicals, including asbestos. Over a year ago, the EPA was finally given the authority to evaluate and potentially take action against chemicals that may pose an unnecessarily dangerous risk to public health and the environment with the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Act.
Since then, the public has gotten some insight into their investigation with the release of the initial scoping documents this summer. The scoping documents are just the first step in the evaluation process, as the EPA will move forward with hazard and exposure assessments, followed by risk characterizations and determinations. In the period prior to the release of the scoping document, the EPA opened up a commenting period for the public to express their opinions and any concerns surrounding the investigation. The ability for public commenting was reopened since the release of the scoping document until September 19, and it is likely as the evaluation continues, commenting will be reopened again.
Throughout this commenting period, the asbestos investigation saw support for stricter regulations and an eventual ban, as well as various pleas from industries that still rely on asbestos, asking for the EPA to essentially ignore certain uses of the mineral in their evaluation.
Support for an Asbestos Ban
Individuals and agencies in a few key industries have stepped forward to support the EPA’s investigation of asbestos, and make some comments in the hopes of a thorough evaluation that will lead to an eventual ban of the toxin.
Many comments in the docket have come from asbestos professionals throughout the country. Asbestos supervisors, managers, abatement professionals and others in the field have stepped forward to express their concerns over the toxin. Even though removing and disposing of asbestos is their livelihood, many of the comments called on the EPA to consider the legacy uses of asbestos these professionals and their clients often face.
The majority of their comments were stated in one standard text signed by the the individuals for effect. In regard to their concern for their clients, these certified professionals wrote: “With release of deadly asbestos fibers as a risk assessment criterion, it should be acknowledged that everyday citizens ‘use’ the flooring, ceilings, walls, insulations and fire proofing that are in our buildings. The 'use’ of the material does not end at the time of installation. For many of these materials, the ‘use’ only begins at installation.”
These asbestos professionals concluded with how they “look forward to the day these legacy materials are out of the building environments altogether.” They applaud the efforts being made to ban asbestos, and hope the EPA also abandons the one percent rule that allows certain newly manufactured products to contain up to one percent of asbestos.
The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) also expressed their concern over the legacy uses of asbestos. The agency represents over 300,000 full-time firefighters and paramedics across the country, all of whom worry about the asbestos that remains in thousands of old buildings and homes. Asbestos had been used for decades as a means to fireproof these buildings, which contain all sorts of asbestos-containing products from insulation and flooring to the roofing.
Similarly to the concerns of the asbestos professionals, the IAFF stated their concerns for both the public and the firefighters themselves because of these toxic environments. Asbestos products can easily be damaged by the fire itself or potentially broken in the act of opening up walls and ceilings to find areas the fire has extended, putting firefighters at a high risk of exposure. In the closing of their statement, the IAFF said “Asbestos exposure to fire fighters is almost a daily occurrence. In order to protect our members, it is essential for the EPA to understand our exposures and fully evaluate the risk asbestos has on the public and first responders,” meaning legacy uses should certainly be an aspect of the investigation.
Environmental and Health Agencies
Various environmental and health agencies also came together both on joint documents and in individual comments to show their support for the investigation and also draw attention to the need for evaluation of legacy uses.
The American Public Health Association (APHA)’s Occupational Health and Safety section submitted a comment calling on the EPA to assert its authority for a ban. The APHA asked the EPA to make a detailed inventory of both current and legacy uses of asbestos, as the “conditions of use” mentioned in their documents should include both seen and unforeseen risks to workers and the general public. The APHA stated current uses of asbestos, as well as its prior uses, are all dangerous and generally have not been safely and properly managed in many instances over the years. The APHA is urging the EPA to push for a complete ban of asbestos, including products like talc that have been known to be contaminated with the mineral.
Other agencies had similar recommendations in their comments. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Earthjustice, the Environmental Health Strategy Center and many organizations from around the world added their names and support for a ban on the toxin.
Opposition for a Ban
Of course, not all the comments on the docket were in favor of a ban, or even stricter regulations of asbestos. In general, all these agencies or individuals came from the chemical industry, which still relies on imports of asbestos for their processes.
The Chlorine Institute is an organization with 190 members from around the world who work in the chlor-alkali industry. On behalf of the industry members, their comment explained that while asbestos is used in about 23% of the 44 large chlorine production facilities in the U.S., there are safety standards in place that make its use safe. The agency further explained they release updated pamphlets every five years with industry guidelines on how to safely handle asbestos.
In conclusion, they wrote: “The chlor-alkali industry has a proven record of the safe use of asbestos within the chlorine production process. CI members believe that with the effective controls currently in place, a scientifically based risk assessment of the chlor-alkali industry’s use of asbestos in chlorine production will demonstrate that this use does not pose an unreasonable health risk to workers.”
The Chemours Company, a spin-off from the well-known chemical company E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, also asked the EPA to recognize the need for asbestos gaskets where “alternatives are not available.” The company explains they import asbestos sheets from China to make these gaskets, which contain no less than 80% of chrysotile asbestos fibers encapsulated in a synthetic rubber compound that doesn’t allow the fibers to become friable. Chemours states they have actively been decreasing their asbestos use over the past several years, and have an asbestos management program in place to protect their workers. As such, the company suggests asbestos shouldn’t be banned, at least in these instances.
Other similar organizations, like the Adhesive and Sealant Council, also called on the EPA to essentially ignore certain uses or instances of asbestos in regard to a ban or any further regulations.
The comment section for the asbestos investigation closed on September 19, but there are still plenty of ways to show the EPA your support of a ban. Though many of the comments show their support for strict and swift action to be taken against asbestos, there are still many opposing further regulations and reasoning that it should still be allowed in chemical processes and legacy uses aren’t dangerous. By now, research has proven the dangers of asbestos and how many lives are at stake from its once wide use.
It’s up to all of us to take a stand against these corporations that are fighting to keep asbestos legal. As the evaluation continues, the opportunity to comment will likely re-open to the public, and we can all clearly express concerns, bring further attention to the dangers, and actively support a much needed ban. In the meantime, you can help by educating others and raising awareness through your own social media presence, signing petitions, and talking to your local representatives. This evaluation is the closest the United States has been to a potential asbestos ban in decades, and we can help ensure the EPA realizes the profound support behind an asbestos ban and add more voices of reason to why asbestos is dangerous.