The Trump administration is limiting the mandated reviews of out-of-use, high-risk chemicals such as asbestos, flame-retardants, and other toxins in homes, offices, and industrial plants around the country.
Instead of moving forward with former President Barack Obama’s proposal to look at chemicals in use by the public and their amounts of exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency will only review toxins still being manufactured and entering commerce. So it will not focus on new handling and disposal rules for existing materials.
The few hundred tons of asbestos that are imported each year will be reviewed, but the estimated 8.9 million tons of asbestos-containing products that entered the country between 1970 and 2016 will not.
The decision is mostly based on a 1994 Occupational Safety and Health Administration study that found materials had to contain over one percent asbestos to require regulation. However, public health experts say this number is arbitrary.
“There’s still a lot of asbestos out there,” said internal medicine professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University Michael Harbut. “It’s still legal, it’s still deadly, and it’s going to be a problem for decades to come.”
Harbut is also a medical adviser to an insulation workers’ union and helped create criteria that’s now used by physicians to diagnose and treat asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma cancer.
According to a CDC study in March, mesothelioma caused or contributed to over 45,000 deaths in the U.S. from 1999 to 2015.
Firefighters and construction workers are two groups who are most at risk. Asbestos was widely used in construction materials ranging from roofing and flooring tiles to insulation found in tens of millions of homes.
“I believe the chemical industry is killing firefighters,” said former San Francisco fireman Tony Stefani. He worked for 28 years before retiring in 2003 when he was diagnosed with cancer.
According to a 2015 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study, firefighters contract mesothelioma cancer at twice the rate of other U.S. residents due to asbestos exposure.
“When I entered the department in the early 70s, our biggest fear was dying in the line of duty or succumbing to a heart attack,” said Stefani. “Those were the biggest killers, not cancer. But we work in a hazardous-materials situation every time we have a fire now.”
“Hundreds of thousands of firefighters are going to be affected by this. It is by far the biggest hazard we have out there,” said Assistant General President for Health and Safety at the International Association of Fire Fighters Patrick Morrison. “My God, these are not just firefighters at risk. There are people that live in these structures and don’t know the danger of asbestos.”