Millions of tons of asbestos are among the masses of toxic chemicals escaping Congress-ordered review thanks largely to President Donald Trump’s intervention, according to an Associated Press report.
Some of the deadliest substances and chemicals used across the U.S. came under federal review during President Barack Obama’s second term, when Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Act; a much-needed update to the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). The Trump administration, meanwhile, wants to narrow the review’s scope.
An estimated 8.9 million tons of asbestos-containing products entered the marketplace between 1970 and 2016, the report states. But the EPA would ignore products already in public use, known as “legacy” materials. Instead, the agency would only assess risks of asbestos still entering commerce, which amounts to a marginal several hundred tons.
Under threat of a ticking time bomb of existing asbestos products, the health of the public – especially that of firefighters and construction workers – is uncertain.
Decades of Deadly Exposure to Be Forgotten
Before President Trump took office, the EPA under Obama was mandated to look at chemicals “in a comprehensive way” based on “known, intended and reasonably foreseen uses.” The proposal to review these chemicals was an unprecedented move to “improve public health for years to come,” the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) remarked.
Under Trump and pressure from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry lobbyist, the EPA is now pleading ignorance of congressional intentions. A broader review, according to ACC vice president Michael Walls, would send the EPA “down a rabbit hole chasing after illusory risks.”
From EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones: “EPA considers that such purposes generally fall outside of the circumstances Congress intended the EPA to consider.”
According to critics, however, the law wasn’t up for interpretation. “It doesn’t matter whether the dangerous substance is no longer being manufactured; if people are still being exposed, then there is still a risk,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), 1 of the law’s co-authors. “Ignoring these circumstances would openly violate the letter and the underlying purpose of the law.”
To undermine the goals of the review is not only yet another ploy to unravel Obama’s pro-health efforts, but another example of Trump’s pro-industry motives. Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have a well-documented appreciation for asbestos and other toxins and have relentlessly chosen to promote chemical industry interests over those of everyday citizens.
How Will These Actions Affect Firefighters?
Asbestos was in widespread use through most of the 20th century. Before their carcinogenic dangers became public knowledge, despite asbestos companies’ efforts to hide them, asbestos-containing materials were built undetected into tens of millions of American homes and buildings. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, as in a fire, asbestos fibers become dislodged and cause serious lung problems such as mesothelioma, a lethal cancer. This is what poses a unique threat to firefighters, compared to the general population, and makes them twice as likely to develop mesothelioma.
“Hundreds of thousands of firefighters are going to be affected by this. It is by far the biggest hazard we have out there,” said Patrick Morrison, assistant general president for health and safety at the International Association of Fire Fighters. “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.”
We now know that mesothelioma contributes to an increasing number of deaths, totaling 45,000 between 1999 and 2015. It’s too late for firefighters once unaware of their exposure and a need to protect themselves – mesothelioma has no cure. But little can be done for future responders, either, with asbestos-containing products still in use. There is no safe level of exposure to the mineral; all it takes is one asbestos fiber to cause mesothelioma. Firefighters will know what they’re getting into, but will be forced to endanger themselves anyway.
“There’s still a lot of asbestos out there,” said Michael Harbut, internal medicine professor at Wayne State University. “It’s still legal, it’s still deadly.” And contrary to EDF’s hopes, “it’s going to be a problem for decades to come.”