In the long and seemingly never-ending battle to regulate and control the use of deadly asbestos, the U.S. moved 1 step closer toward meaningful action this past Tuesday, November 29th, 2016.
Each year, asbestos – a lethal fibrous mineral mined from the earth – is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, with some estimates of the annual death toll at upwards to 12,000 to 15,000. Asbestos causes mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that attacks the lining of one’s lungs (mesothelium), asbestosis, a deadly scarring of the lungs, and asbestos-triggered lung cancer, which needs no introduction.
With around 3,200 new cases of mesothelioma annually, unwitting Americans have suffered long enough. And the corrupt chemical-industry business practices responsible for Americans’ suffering have prevailed for far too long.
In a landmark move, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has moved forward on its promise to investigate asbestos — an effort that was triggered, in part, by the passing of the Lautenberg Act (known informally as TSCA Reform Act), which was signed into law in June 2016.
What Chemicals and Substances Are on the EPA’s List?
On Tuesday, the EPA listed the first 10 high-risk substances and chemicals that it will study and investigate for safety, in a larger effort to propose stiffer regulations or outright bans on substances proven to be dangerous. This, of course, is in accordance with the new, 2016 toxic-chemic law. The EPA’s list includes the following:
- Carbon Tetrachloride
- Cyclic Aliphatic Bromide Cluster
- Methylene Chloride
- Pigment Violet 29
- Tetrachloroethylene (otherwise known as perchloroethylene)
So, yes, asbestos is on the list — which has been killing tens of thousands of Americans for generations — but what does that mean? And, further, what does this mean now, with a new president, a new presidential cabinet, and a Republican Congress?
What about the President-Elect Donald Trump and His New Cabinet?
While president-elect Donald Trump was campaigning throughout 2015 and 2016, he made clear his desire to impose limits on the EPA. In the past, the real-estate mogul praised the use of asbestos in his now-famous Tweet: “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.”
So, given these sentiments from the president-elect, the EPA’s announcement couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment: before Mr. Trump takes office on January 20th, 2017.
When America learned that Donald Trump would become the 45th U.S. president, many anti-asbestos advocates panicked, thinking that his presidency would almost certainly lead to less regulations on toxic chemicals (given his business ties), and a potential resurgence in asbestos use.
This is all to say that the EPA’s list of 10 substances and chemicals for priority action needed to pass before Trump moved into the Oval Office. Including asbestos on this list means the outgoing EPA team set legally enforceable deadlines and requirements for the incoming EPA to adhere to under the rules of the new law. Thus, any Trump plan to derail asbestos regulations or institute the substance’s resurgence is avoided. The Kicker? This law passed Congress by a bi-partisan, unanimous consent. It would be very difficult to overturn.
Chemical Industry Groans over Their Loss
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a member organization and a major lobbying arm for some of the world’s largest companies represents the opposition to any further regulatory actions when it comes to dangerous chemicals and asbestos. The ACC represents the chloralkali industry, which is responsible for nearly 90 percent of American asbestos usage. This organization has worked tirelessly to keep asbestos in legal commerce, always putting profits ahead of people.
It only took the ACC a matter of minutes to draw up their statement in response to the EPA’s list, and the Agency’s proposed evaluations of asbestos and other high-risk chemicals.
“It is important to note that a chemical’s inclusion in this first group of ten chemicals does not in and of itself indicate anything about the safety of the chemical. Its listing is simply an acknowledgement by the Agency that is plans to conduct risk evaluations on these ten chemicals before others.”
It seems clear that the ACC is down-playing the EPA’s announcement, but who could blame them? They’re frightened that their precious profit margins will go down.
What Are the EPA’s Responsibilities Now?
Under the guidelines of the Lautenberg Act, the EPA must now complete the following:
- Release a scoping document within 6 months for each substance or chemical on the list of 10. This document will include: hazards, exposures, conditions of use, and vulnerable populations that the agency will consider for further risk evaluation.
- Adhere to a 3-year statutory deadline to complete a thorough risk evaluation. This risk evaluation will identify whether a substance or chemical presents an unreasonable risk to humans and/or the environment.
- Take regulatory action(s), including a full ban, on substances and chemicals that are found to pose unreasonable risks.
- Limit the unreasonable risk within a 2-year maximum.
This process will take time — likely 3-5 years. According to a report by the Huffington Post, this means that a ban on asbestos could come as early as 2021. However, given the EPA’s extensive study of the mineral’s toxic nature already, it is possible that an outright ban on asbestos could come even sooner than that.
The EPA Now Poised to Take Meaningful Action
This is especially good news for the ban-asbestos community, and for those who are concerned, in general, with the handling and federal regulation of deadly, toxic chemicals and substances in the United States.
As it stands presently, there are over 80,000 unregulated chemicals in the U.S., and these chemicals — including asbestos — are responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 Americans each year. Workplace exposure to toxic chemicals and substances is a mass-killer, as well. According to the latest PEER Research report, which was released in May 2015, workplace exposure to toxic materials accounts for an additional 40,000 premature deaths.
For a long time, the EPA was powerless when it came to creating and upholding new regulations on dangerous substances and chemicals. The EPA had issued a full, federal ban asbestos in 1989, but this decision was overturned only 2 years later — due in large part to the lobbying and influence of some of the world’s largest chemical corporations. The passing of the TSCA reform law has essentially given the power back to the federal regulators.
Jim Jones, assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution, EPA, said:
“Under the new law, we [the EPA] now have the power to require safety reviews of all chemicals in the marketplace. We can ensure the public that we will deliver on the promise to better protect public health and the environment.”
The truth is this: Asbestos — and these other deadly chemicals should have been banned for good a long time ago. But, big business won out. Now, however, it seems big business will have to scramble to make a Plan B, for it was the American public who scored a major victory on Tuesday. Let us hope this is but one of many others to come.