As part of its unprecedented review of toxic substances used in America, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its draft risk evaluation for asbestos on March 30.
After review, the EPA concluded that asbestos inhalation posed unreasonable risks to workers and consumers. Even when personal protective equipment (PPE) was used in tightly controlled environments, the agency identified cancer risks for those who worked with asbestos, as well as those who were nearby.
Revised Toxic Substances Control Act
The draft risk assessment is part of a review process that the EPA is required to pursue under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was amended by a bipartisan Congress in 2016. Under the new law, the EPA has to review all toxic chemicals on the market and decide whether or not they pose an unreasonable risk.
Asbestos was one of the first 10 toxic substances set to be reviewed. Many hoped that the EPA would use the new legislation to ban asbestos once and for all.
While the EPA’s draft findings appear at first blush to be a positive step on the way to ridding the country of the carcinogenic mineral, some in the public health community are deeply worried by the limits of the agency’s evaluation. In Congress, members who passed the new toxic substance legislation are fuming about the agency’s behavior.
“It is now clear that this EPA has no intention of addressing this dangerous, proven carcinogen,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in a press release about the new draft risk evaluation.
Instead of waiting for the EPA to continue its slow, flawed process, Pallone joined his voice with those in the asbestos-disease prevention community, arguing that “Congress must pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act and put an end to this public health threat once and for all.”
Many Americans wrongly believe that asbestos is banned because it is a known carcinogen, which can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Unfortunately, the 1989 ban on asbestos was overturned in 1991 by an industry-friendly court decision that keeps the toxic mineral legal to this day.
Where Is Asbestos Still Used in America?
Though it has not been mined or produced in the United States since 2002, each year, roughly 550 tons of raw asbestos are imported from Russia and Brazil for use by the chlor-alkali industry. The asbestos is used exclusively for diaphragms in electrolytic cells that allow manufacturers to produce sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), hydrogen, and chlorine.
According to the EPA, there are 15 chlor-alkali plants in America that continue to fabricate and use asbestos-containing diaphragms, which are:
- Olin Corporation
- Occidental Chemical Corporation
- Westlake Corporation
The agency noted that a fourth chlor-alkali company operating on American soil, Axiall Corporation, was acquired by Westlake Corporation in 2016.
Additionally, the EPA also identified the continued importation of asbestos-containing products, which are manufactured in countries with laxer laws. Because of the limited reporting requirements imposed by the EPA, the agency does not know the full volume of asbestos-containing products.
Those identified by the EPA’s assessment include:
- Sheet gaskets
- Brake blocks
- Aftermarket automotive brakes/linings
- Other vehicle friction products
- Other gaskets
Where the EPA had information, they evaluated the risk posed by asbestos at every step in the chain: importation, manufacturing, processing, distribution, disposal, and occupational and consumer uses.
EPA: All Ongoing Uses of Asbestos Present Unreasonable Risk of Cancer
After visiting locations where workers were being asked to handle asbestos and asbestos-containing products, the EPA found that the risks were unreasonable.
In their draft risk evaluation, regulators described the tight controls and safety measures that each industry implemented. Despite such precautions, the EPA described the following serious concerns:
Occupational Conditions of Use for Asbestos that Present an Unreasonable Risk to Health
- Processing and Industrial use of Asbestos Diaphragms in Chlor-alkali Industry
- Processing and Industrial Use of Asbestos-Containing Sheet Gaskets in Chemical Production
- Industrial Use and Disposal of Asbestos-Containing Brake Blocks in Oil Industry
- Commercial Use and Disposal of Aftermarket Automotive Asbestos-Containing Brakes/Linings
- Commercial Use and Disposal of Other Vehicle Friction Products
- Commercial Use and Disposal of Other Asbestos-Containing Gaskets
Consumer Uses and Disposal of Asbestos that Present an Unreasonable Risk to Health
- Aftermarket Automotive Asbestos-Containing Brakes/Linings
- Other Asbestos-Containing Gaskets
The occupational risks were highest for people who worked directly with asbestos, but the EPA said occupational non-users (people within the area of asbestos) were also at unreasonable risk. Similarly, consumers who used asbestos-containing products also put bystanders at an unreasonable risk of exposure.
Limits of the EPA’s Draft Risk Assessment of Asbestos
Asbestos is a commercial designation for 6 minerals—chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, asbestiform tremolite, asbestiform anthophyllite, and asbestiform actinolite—but the EPA limited its risk evaluation to a single type of asbestos fiber, chrysotile, because it is the only type of asbestos still being imported and used in America.
The EPA also declined to consider the legacy uses of asbestos, which is to say the risk posed by the millions of tons of asbestos that lingers inside older homes, schools, and military bases across the country.
A 2019 circuit court ruling compelled the agency to evaluate other asbestos fiber types and legacy uses. The EPA avoided this guidance, but said it, “intends to consider legacy uses and associated disposal in a supplemental scope document and supplemental risk evaluation.” The agency did not provide a timeline for these supplemental documents.
How the agency defined “cancer risk” with regards to asbestos was also puzzling to health experts. As noted by Linda Reinstein, President and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), the EPA’s draft risk evaluation, “only looks at the risks of lung cancer and mesothelioma.” But these are hardly the only diseases caused by asbestos.
The new draft risk evaluation “does not consider other types of cancer (ovarian and laryngeal) that are known to be caused by asbestos or serious non-cancer diseases (asbestosis) related to asbestos exposure,” said Reinstein.
She also expressed concern about the lack of information the EPA had regarding asbestos-containing products. “Had EPA granted the petitions of ADAO and 18 State Attorneys General to require reporting on asbestos under TSCA,” she said, “[they] would have been able to collect this missing information and its evaluation would not contain these fundamental data gaps.”
Problems With a Limited Risk Evaluation of Asbestos
For the bipartisan group of legislators that amended TCSA to give the EPA clear authority to regulate toxic chemicals, the agency’s limited evaluation makes no sense.
“This proposal doubles down on the approach to asbestos risk evaluation that was already rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Pallone. He explained:
“Under that ruling, and under the plain language of the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA is required to include legacy uses of asbestos in its risk evaluation.
The Trump EPA needs to remember that federal court rulings are not merely a suggestion and stop excluding the risks posed by legacy uses in order to manipulate the science and exonerate asbestos.”
Without looking at the full scope of the risk posed by asbestos — all types of asbestos, all types of asbestos-related diseases, and the millions of tons of legacy asbestos — how is the EPA supposed to make knowledgeable decisions about the public health?
This approach is sure to leave blind spots. Why would the EPA punt on evaluating legacy uses now, even as teachers develop mesothelioma from asbestos exposure in American schools?
What Happens Next?
Following the draft risk evaluation’s official publication in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day public comment period for consumer, industry, and public health groups to respond. Given the outbreak of coronavirus, some have argued that physicians and experts will not have the time they need to offer thoughtful feedback to regulators.
Hours after the EPA released its asbestos evaluation and triggered the comment period, public health groups were lobbying for an extension.
In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Reinstein and the ADAO Science Advisory Board asked that the agency put the review process, “on hold until the current crisis is resolved and the scientific and medical community can give the draft evaluation the time and attention it deserves.”
As ADAO noted, a key advisory committee will review the draft risk evaluation 30 days after its release. To get members of this committee the information they need, comments will need to be submitted before then. “Even under normal circumstances, this schedule would be extremely challenging,” they wrote:
“The asbestos risk evaluation is simply too important for EPA to proceed without the informed and thoughtful participation of leading asbestos experts.
Yet this will be the consequence of a rushed process that ignores the coronavirus pandemic and imposes an impossible timetable on overstressed scientists.”
Physicians who specialize in respiratory disease are those best positioned to guide policymakers on asbestos regulation. Right now, they have a once-in-a-century outbreak on their hands.
Americans Can’t Wait — Pass a Full Asbestos Ban Now
Since 2016, the EPA has delayed and delayed using its powers under the new TSCA. Why rush now?
And, if the EPA continues to forsake its lawful duty to fully regulate toxic chemicals, Congress will have to step in again.
“We need Congress to move to now to pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act which would ban imports, use, and mitigate asbestos in our homes, schools, and workplaces,” said Reinstein.
“Americans can’t wait for the EPA to get it right.”