It has only taken a year and half for the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to severely weaken the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the “landmark reform” law governing our country’s chemical safety regulations. The 2016 bipartisan reform bill, known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Act, passed during the Obama administration, significantly updating TSCA for the hazards and health threats of the 21st century.
Obama-era TSCA reform was poised to reduce public health risks significantly, in addition to lowering the injury- and death-toll caused by hazardous materials that should not be legal.
But on June 1, under the direction of then-EPA-Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA authorized the “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR, for short), which allows companies operating within the United States to propose new uses for toxic substances – asbestos among them – on a case-by-case basis. For example, SNUR will permit the creation of new products containing asbestos, legally welcoming back one of the most dangerous human carcinogens into U.S. manufacturing.
To many, this new rule will only serve to hand over the government’s regulatory power to chemical industry companies.
‘Significant New Use’ of Asbestos
Many Americans believe asbestos is and has been banned by the U.S. for some time. This is not true. While asbestos was banned once – briefly – in 1989, the ban was quickly overturned by industry lobbyists in 1991. Since then, asbestos has been regulated by the federal government, but it remains legal for certain uses today. In fact, the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that has kept asbestos legal. Around the world, over 60 countries, including most of Europe, have banned all uses of asbestos outright.
Many Americans also believed that when the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was revised in 2016, it meant that known public health hazards like asbestos were on their way out the door. A ban, it seemed, was only a matter of time.
Sadly, this is no longer the case. Since Trump took office in 2017, his deregulation agenda has arguably affected no other federal agency more than the EPA. In a short 1.5 years, the EPA has seen not only its budget slashed, but its staff too. Former administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned last month amidst a laundry list of scandals, has nevertheless left his fingerprints all over the agency. The SNUR rule is one such policy that came under Pruitt.
What SNUR will do is allow companies to propose to the EPA “new uses” for asbestos, for any kind of manufacturing. In part, it may even serve to revive – to a lesser degree – the pre-regulation era of the 1960s and ‘70s, which saw asbestos use across dozens of industries. These “new uses,” according to the EPA’s own document, could include old uses that were formerly disallowed.
One need not be a public health advocate to see how such a measure is bad for the wellbeing and safety of the American public. And, unfortunately, asbestos isn’t the only substance that SNUR affects.
Just last week, the EPA approved the first “new use” of a toxic chemical under its SNUR rule. The chemical, “Oxirane, 2-methyl-, polymer with oxirane, bis[2-[(1-oxo-2-propen-1-yl)amino]propyl] ether,” which is classed as a “acrylamide,” belongs to a family of chemicals that are considered carcinogens, heritable mutagens, reproductive and developmental toxicants, and toxic to aquatic organisms. Still, the EPA posted a “not likely to pose an unreasonable risk” determination for this chemical.
In this case, the EPA’s determination allows the company, International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., to now manufacture and sell the chemical without any limitations.
From ‘Miracle Mineral’ to Public Menace, Asbestos Is Poised for a Return
In May, the EPA published a report that detailed the agency’s proposed framework for evaluating the risks of its top-priority substances. As part of their new framework, the EPA will no longer consider the effect or presence of toxic chemicals and substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments. Rather, in opposition to the law it allegedly upholds, SNUR will allow companies to use toxic substances like asbestos without further consideration to how such new uses might put people at risk for exposure.
Much of this is great news for companies in the chlor-alkali industry that already import asbestos into the U.S. from Brazil and Russia at an alarming rate of 480 metric tons per year. Currently, asbestos’s primary use in the U.S. is for making chlorine, which is in turn used to produce plastics. Historically, companies in the chemical industry chose to use asbestos in manufacturing because of its affordability over alternatives.
Throughout much of the 20th century, asbestos was used widely in construction, insulation, shipbuilding, electric work, and automobile manufacturing, among many other industries. Known as a so-called “miracle mineral,” asbestos was utilized for its natural strength and fireproofing properties.
While asbestos-using companies like Johns Manville and W.R. Grace & Co. knew about the health risks asbestos posed to their workers, they chose to keep their knowledge a secret. This decision has led to the death of thousands and thousands of American workers.
Now, the public knowledge of the dangers associated with asbestos are widely known. Exposure to the carcinogen not only causes asbestosis, a painful scarring of the lungs, but also lung cancer and mesothelioma. According to the latest statistics, compiled by the Dr. Jukka Takala, President of the International Commission of Occupational Health (IOCH), asbestos-related deaths in the U.S. have climbed from an estimated 12,000-15,000 to 39,000.
Where Should the Public Look for Help? Not Trump.
For his own part, President Trump has done nothing to dissuade companies from using known human carcinogens like asbestos. In his 1997 book The Art of the Deal, Trump claimed the ban-asbestos movement was a mob-led conspiracy. And in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Trump infamously tweeted out:
“If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire-retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.”
In spite of Trump’s tweet, it was found that over 400 tons of asbestos went into the construction of the World Trade Center buildings.
In July, the Russian asbestos company Uralasbest posted a Facebook picture showing pallets of their asbestos product being readied for overseas shipping. The pallets, several feet high and wrapped in plastic, were sealed with images of President Trump’s face and the words “approved by Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.”
Much like the industry titans that stand to gain from the deregulation policies controlling harmful substances like asbestos, Trump too has made it clear where he stands. And with this particular kind of rhetoric presiding over the national conversation on asbestos, it’s no wonder the Pruitt- and Wheeler-led EPA has conducted itself the way it has: with eyes only for industry.
ADAO, Other Organizations Speak Out
Linda Reinstein, President and Co-Founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), has made it clear that anything short of a ban is not good enough. Her stance is right: As long as companies are allowed to abuse rules like SNUR to keep using dangerous substances that help them save money – even at the expense of public health – they will.
Bill Walsh, Board President of the Healthy Building Network (HBN), an environmental advocacy group, holds a similar position to Reinstein on the matter. Walsh believes that If we can’t trust the president and the EPA to protect us from serious public-health hazards, then it is at least partly up to the public to prioritize safety. With regards to the construction industry, which has historically used asbestos in building materials, Walsh said they also have a responsibility to promote safety:
“Architects really set the pace of design, in terms of aesthetics and materials that we like. If they start to incorporate health-based criteria into their palette, it could really have an influence on what the manufacturers produce.”
The American public has until August 10 to provide comments to the EPA regarding its SNUR rule. Comments can made here.
With countless lives on the line, it is absolutely crucial that we use our voices to speak out against the unjust, business-first policies that will continue to put American lives in jeopardy for decades to come.