Could asbestos make a comeback?
That’s a question you might be confused to hear if you’re aware of the mineral’s dangers. Its potential to kill – and indeed, details of thousands of past asbestos-related deaths – started making headlines only in the last few decades.
But under President Trump’s Environmental “Protection” Agency (EPA), asbestos has become part of a different narrative: one that describes the carcinogen as safe and refutes any evidence otherwise. One that’s making it easier, not harder, for companies to begin using asbestos as they did before it was partially banned in the ‘70s.
If you thought the chances of a full ban would improve after Scott Pruitt left the agency, you might be wrong. Here’s a brief history of asbestos regulation and what we can expect in the future.
Why Has Asbestos Use Continued?
The EPA has restricted the use of asbestos over the years. A 1973 ban of spray-applied asbestos began a short series of similarly minor efforts, leaving at least 18 products legal.
Just 2 years ago, however, Obama signed an amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), putting asbestos on a hit list of 10 high-risk substances to evaluate. And in June this year, the EPA enacted a Significant New Use Rule (“SNUR”), meaning new asbestos-containing products must be approved by the government on a case-by-case basis.
But the SNUR and TSCA “efforts” seem to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. After significantly narrowing asbestos evaluation by excluding legacy (already existing) products from review, the EPA reported in June that it would no longer assess the risk of toxic substances in the air, ground, or water.
To be clear, that means turning a blind eye to contamination, improper disposal, emissions, and other serious, long-term environmental and health risks.
Leaving the agency to assess… what, exactly?
“The Trump administration rewrote the rules to be dramatically less protective of human health … experts who have looked at [the document] have said that in the end, it pretty much gives EPA discretion to do whatever it wants,” said Bill Walsh, board president of the NGO Healthy Building Network. “The EPA’s failure to further regulate asbestos continues to provide a green light for its continued use in the U.S., even as it has been curtailed overseas.”
Asbestos and Ongoing Fight Between Corporate and Public Interest
Asbestos-containing products don’t necessarily pose a direct threat. Ceiling tiles, piping, insulation, and other asbestos-containing household items can lay dormant for years, if intact.
But when disturbed, asbestos strikes. Exposure to its tiny fibers, invisible to the human eye, is irrefutably proven to cause fatal diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.
This makes asbestos a potential threat not just to consumers, but to workers who mine it or use it in construction, industrial facilities that import it, removal experts who abate it, and anyone near these sites or the landfills where asbestos ends up.
This once-called “magical mineral” was considered safe throughout most of the 20th century. Asbestos was built into millions of residential and commercial buildings still standing today. But that was before evidence linked asbestos exposure to death, prompting bans in more than 55 countries. Meanwhile, the U.S., one of the few developed nations yet to ban asbestos outright, still imports hundreds of metric tons every year. Why? The industry is far too profitable to shut down for the sake of public health.
Trump and Asbestos Regulation: Past and Future
His public protests date back at least to 1997, when he declared in his book, Art of the Comeback, that asbestos bans are a conspiracy “led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.” As recently as June, he became the poster boy of one of the biggest asbestos mining companies in Russia, which is poised to become the sole source of asbestos once Brazil’s ban goes through.
But it’s not just Trump’s opinions that raise concerns. Nor those of Scott Pruitt, another open asbestos supporter, who resigned last month following his string of ethical missteps. The new concern: acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a man chillingly described by environmental activists as not only supportive of Trump’s agenda, but better skilled at carrying it out.
Who Is Andrew Wheeler? What Are His Plans for the EPA?
Wheeler has a few positives on his side. His low-key reputation, clean record, and decades-long history in positions with the EPA and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works look good on paper. But he’s also an ex-lobbyist, and perhaps a bit too close to the Committee for comfort.
Last week, Wheeler appeared before Committee members to testify for the first time since taking charge of the EPA. There, he was challenged by panel members to “differentiate himself from Mr. Pruitt” and repair his damage to the agency.
Yet Wheeler made it clear he would continue Pruitt’s work. On the one hand, he’s still prioritizing the cleanup of Superfund sites. On the other, he’s continuing to roll back Obama-era rules like the Clean Power Plan and coal ash regulation, and has already signed revisions giving utilities “much-needed flexibility” to manage their waste.
“By rolling back the monitoring requirements, the administration is essentially giving the industry a green light to look the other way,” said Frank Pallone (D-NJ), top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “It’s just the latest example of the Trump administration putting industry profits ahead of public health.”
Unlike Pallone, the Environment and Public Works Committee’s Democrats seemed willing to accept Wheeler as an improvement on Pruitt during last week’s hearing. Republican senators said they hope he’ll be made permanent administrator. But environmental activists? They prefer the term “Pruitt puppet.”
“Scott Pruitt may be gone,” Pallone continued, “but [Wheeler’s] action shows that his toxic legacy lives on.”