The past few weeks have seen asbestos in headlines across all major media outlets as the public comes to grips with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) asbestos Significant New Use Rule, or SNUR, for short. As part of a lengthy deregulation agenda, Trump’s EPA seemingly has its eyes on allowing new products to be manufactured with asbestos, a known carcinogen responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths each year.
As reported, SNUR makes it easier than at any point over the last 3 decades for asbestos to be welcomed back into U.S. commerce. SNUR makes this possible by allowing companies to propose new asbestos-containing products for manufacturing and distribution in the United States. Once a proposal is made, the EPA will then assess the product’s health risks and approve such new uses on a case-by-case basis.
The EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator, Nancy Beck, gave an example of how the SNUR process will work in an interview with The New York Times: “[With regards to SNUR], if you want to put asbestos in flooring materials (for example) you have to come to us first and we have to do a thorough risk evaluation and approve it.”
The SNUR proposal was issued on June 11 under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, roughly 1 month before Pruitt quit the agency amidst an ever-growing list of scandals for which he was under federal investigation. But now, under the direction of acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA is poised to carry out Trump’s (and formerly Pruitt’s) mission of rolling back hard-won pro-environmental gains; this, in the era of unmitigated deregulation.
Why Is Asbestos in the News?
Asbestos first made headlines this summer when it was learned that Donald Trump’s face and seal of approval was plastered across pallets of Russian-mined asbestos being readied for shipping overseas.
Then, in early July, Johnson & Johnson lost a $550 Million verdict to a woman who suffered ovarian cancer from using asbestos-tainted talc Baby Powder – the third-largest verdict of 2018. Later in July, a steam pipe blew up in Manhattan, sending countless asbestos fibers soaring into the air. Several blocks of the Flatiron District were shut down for over a week, and over 500 New Yorkers were displaced.
Earlier in August, asbestos again made the news when consumer safety watchdog group Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) detected, as part of their annual school-supply safety report, asbestos in children’s Playskool crayons sold at Dollar Tree and on Amazon.com.
The Significant New Use Rule for asbestos was proposed June, and it largely slipped by under-the-radar, until news outlets started looking into the EPA’s proposal a little more closely. Since then, the public realization of the implications of SNUR have started to settle in, and published reactions have been widespread.
Organizations, Public Figures Denounce SNUR
In a letter to acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has decried the EPA’s SNUR policy, asking the EPA to revoke SNUR and instead impose a very necessary and long-awaited ban on all future uses of asbestos:
“The asserted goal of [SNUR] is to create a pathway to consider new uses of asbestos. The AIA opposes this goal, even if on a case by case basis, and feels the EPA should use their existing regulatory authority to establish a blanket ban on the use of asbestos.”
Also publicly denouncing the EPA’s policy are the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), whose co-founder and CEO Linda Reinstein has gone on public record condemning SNUR:
“The proposed Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) which EPA touts as a meaningful action on asbestos is a poor substitute for a full risk evaluation and a permanent ban. A SNUR is not an asbestos ban and will not protect Americans.”
Chelsea Clinton, too, has also weighed in, issuing a tweet on August 7, citing the Architects Newspaper’s reaction to the SNUR proposal. Clinton wrote:
“Asbestos was one of the first carcinogens regulated under the Clean Air Act in 1973 (Nixon was president) and then was largely banned in 1989 (George HW Bush was president). No amount of asbestos is safe. Yet, the Trump administration is #MAGA or making asbestos great again”
The public’s frustration is swelling – it’s easy to see and even easier to understand.
What Are the Latest Developments?
Public health organizations and advocates have made it no secret that they condemn such EPA policies. In addition to the extensive reporting on SNUR, last week saw The New York Times publish internal EPA emails showing EPA attorneys and scientists objecting to the SNUR proposal, which was ultimately pushed through by “upper management.”
The internal EPA emails obtained by the New York Times exemplify a brand of corruption that is in tune with the current administration, which so often uses the power of “upper management” to strongarm lower-level employees into committing acts they cannot, in principle, commit. It is for reasons like this that the EPA has seen thousands of employees quit, citing ethical concerns.
In the email exchange between EPA workers at different branches within the agency, attorney advisor Mark Seltzer wrote,
“Asbestos is an extremely dangerous substance with no safe exposure amount. Asbestos exposure therefore continues to be an important public health concern, underscoring the need to improve and enhance regulatory efforts to prevent human exposures. We are particularly concerned about the proposed SNUR approach.”
Both Susan Fairchild and Sharon Cooperstein shared Mark Seltzer’s concerns, but all 3 EPA employees received pushback from “upper management,” who ultimately pushed for the SNUR proposal to be published on the EPA’s website.
This clash at the EPA highlights the agency’s deep internal conflict over the Trump administration’s agenda to roll back environmental rules in favor of industry.
Why Is SNUR Bad for America?
Unfortunately, the EPA has been pitching SNUR as a good thing, claiming it will toughen regulatory oversight. In reality, SNUR is a devious kind of regulation ensuring the public that before any new uses of asbestos occur, they are first looked over and okayed by federal review.
The problem with this rationale is the simple fact that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. No matter what “new uses” companies may propose for asbestos, no use will ever be safe. Given the well-documented health hazards associated with asbestos, EPA regulators shouldn’t even hint at the idea that there remain possible “new uses” for asbestos.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen that is dangerous during all stages of its mining and usage. It is banned in over 55 countries worldwide. More importantly, it has been killing Americans for the better half of a century through asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma (a kind of cancer that affects the pleural linings of the lungs, heart, and abdomen), lung cancer, and asbestosis.
The latest estimate shows asbestos-related fatalities in the U.S. are as high as 40,000 per year, putting asbestos on the list of most common causes of death alongside traffic accidents and breast cancer.
Under the SNUR guidelines, Trump’s EPA says it is better protecting Americans from asbestos. This is not true. Instead, the EPA is signaling that it is open to new uses of asbestos so long as it is notified in advance and elects to grant permission.
Moving Forward in the Age of Deregulation
Given the clear indication that Trump-run federal agencies like the EPA are now steering their interests toward industry and away from public health, Americans must remain vigilant when it comes to protecting themselves from lethal hazards like asbestos. SNUR will offer no such protections.
With regards to SNUR, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey perhaps put it best:
“In recent years, tens of thousands have died from mesothelioma and other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos and other dangerous chemicals. If the Trump administration’s erosion of federal chemical safety rules continues, it will endanger our communities and the health of all Americans.”
Maura, of course, is right. And that is why it is up to us to raise our voices, to show our collective strength, and work toward a better, healthier America. This all starts at the ballot boxes this November. With mid-term elections fast approaching, there is an opportunity for voters to promote change within a government that seems all too happy to side with big corporations at the expense of the little guy.
Needless to say, this is a trend we cannot afford.