EPA to Assess the Dangers of Asbestos and Other Toxic Substances

EPA assessing dangers of toxins like asbestos

In a move that could lead to asbestos eventually being banned in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday named asbestos as one of 10 high-risk chemicals to be evaluated under a landmark federal chemical safety law enacted earlier this year.

The EPA’s action in naming asbestos to the list of 10 chemicals to be evaluated under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, was widely praised by environmentalists, consumer protection organizations and advocates for victims of asbestos-related diseases.

Reactions to the EPA’s List

“Today’s historic action by the EPA will finally begin the process of restricting the remaining sources of asbestos, which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, which has conducted extensive studies on the dangers of asbestos.

She added: “We applaud the EPA for making banning asbestos a top priority. We expect the incoming Trump administration to uphold the EPA’s commitment and honor the past, current and future victims of asbestos-triggered diseases.”

Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), also praised the EPA’s move. “The EPA made a life-saving decision today by including asbestos in the first round of chemicals as a top 10 to be regulated under the Lautenberg Act,” Reinstein said. “For decades, the asbestos industry and our government have known asbestos is a carcinogen that kills as many as 15,000 Americans every year, yet to this day asbestos remains legal in the United States.”

“The inclusion of asbestos as a top 10 high-risk chemicals signals the EPA’s commitment to protecting Americans from this and other deadly toxins and sets the stage for future environmental protection efforts,” Reinstein continued. “For far too long, the chemical industry has been allowed to put our families at risk in the name of profit, but today we are a crucial step closer to ending the litany of preventable deaths caused by asbestos exposure.”

New EPA Authority Leads to New Asbestos Assessment

The Lautenberg Act was passed by Congress in June and signed into law by President Barack Obama. Under the law, the EPA was required to identify top high-priority chemicals by December 19. Yesterday’s announcement of the top 10 high-priority chemicals came weeks earlier than expected. The announcement had been eagerly awaited by environmentalists and advocates for asbestos-related diseases because of concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s previous statements about asbestos.

Contrary to longstanding scientific evidence, Trump has stated that asbestos is “100 percent safe, once applied,” and he has threatened to dismantle or rein in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for protecting human health and the environment. Though asbestos was widely considered to be at the top of EPA’s list of high-risk chemicals, environmentalists and others warned that, behind the scenes, the asbestos industry was lobbying to keep asbestos off its list of 10 high-priority chemicals.

Yesterday’s announcement was a significant step towards a possible ban of asbestos. But such a ban could take five years, or more. Within the next three years, the agency will study whether the 10 high-priority chemicals present an “unreasonable risk to humans and the environment,” the EPA said. If it determines that a chemical presents an unreasonable risk, EPA must mitigate the risk within two years, through new regulations — or it could move to ban a substance such as asbestos altogether.

Scientists and government agencies have warned that any exposure to asbestos carries risks. Though asbestos is now banned in 55 nations, dozens of countries still use, import and export asbestos and asbestos-containing products, and it is still legal in the United States. In addition to the United States, those countries where asbestos is still legal are primarily developing nations in Asia and Eastern Europe that are desperate for industrial growth and often turn a blind eye to the health and environmental consequences of asbestos exposure.

Although asbestos hasn’t been mined in the United States since 2002 and its use has declined significantly, American businesses still legally import, use and sell both raw asbestos and products made with it, according to interviews with scientists, government officials, statistics compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey and an analysis from EWG Action Fund.

Between 2006 and 2014, more than 8.2 million pounds of asbestos were imported to the United States, including raw asbestos, products containing asbestos and hazardous asbestos waste, the EWG analysis stated. Among other things, asbestos is still used in some automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tool and roofing material, and EWG’s research has identified asbestos fibers in children’s toys, including imported crayons and fingerprint kits.

Next Steps in the Fight to Ban Asbestos

Nearly three decades ago, the administration of former president George H.W. Bush attempted to ban asbestos. In 1989, the EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products under the authority of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). But two years later, the EPA ban was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a decision that established a precedent that has made it extremely difficult for EPA to ban any dangerous chemical. The Lautenberg Act passed earlier this year amended TSCA and gave EPA new authority to eventually ban asbestos.

“Under the new law, we now have the power to require safety reviews of all chemicals in the marketplace,” Jim Jones, EPA’s assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Protection said in an agency press release Tuesday. “We can ensure the public that we will deliver on the promise to better protect public health and the environment.”

In addition to asbestos, the EPA’s list of 10 high-priority chemicals released yesterday included bromopropane, a possible human carcinogen used in consumer products such as aerosol cleaners and adhesives, and cyclic aliphatic bromide cluster, a flame retardant. In naming asbestos to the list, the agency called it a “known human carcinogen.”

“We support EPA’s choice of chemicals,” Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said Tuesday in a statement on the organization’s web site. “The list they announced today is a strong one . . . We are particularly glad to see asbestos included on the list. The EPA’s inability to ban asbestos under the old law was a primary catalyst for the recent reforms. Asbestos is a major piece of unfinished business for the agency.”

For ADAO’s Linda Reinstein, yesterday’s announcement was an important step in a long, uphill battle. She co-founded ADAO in 2004 after her husband, Alan, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Alan Reinstein died in 2006, and his widow has been working tirelessly to ban asbestos in the United States.

“ADAO has been fighting this David vs. Goliath battle for 13 years, going toe-to-toe with deep-pocketed lobbyists,” Linda Reinstein said. “I look forward to a future where one day, asbestos exposure will be a thing of the past.”