Just when it seemed like the American public would finally have safeguards against asbestos, a deadly carcinogen that causes mesothelioma, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled back those protections. This action has resulted in an outcry from consumer health and safety advocates, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), faulting EPA Director Scott Pruitt for allowing this toxic substance to go unchecked.
A Good Idea Spoiled
The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), which regulates hazardous chemicals, received some important updates at the end of the Obama Administration. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act allowed the federal government greater control to regulate chemicals that pose a danger to Americans’ health.
Previously, these substances had been protected under provisions that allowed companies to keep trade practices secret. This meant the government could not test certain chemicals to see if they were hazardous. Such materials are found in many household products, goods such as deodorant, plastics, cosmetics, adhesives, and cleaning products.
President Obama cited the Lautenberg Act as a needed change to regulatory structures that made it difficult to ban chemicals. When he signed the act into law, Obama noted how inefficient the system had become, saying “our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos — a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year.”
Yet under the Trump Administration, the Lautenberg Act has been interpreted in a radically different manner that puts profits before people.
A Legacy of Harm
The EPA was supposed to consider a ban on asbestos, similar to ones that have been enacted in over 55 countries. Yet Pruitt has stated that the EPA will not examine so-called “legacy” uses and disposal methods for asbestos and other hazardous materials. This is a crucial omission, as asbestos was often used in older buildings constructed before its hazards were publicly known.
As the UCS argues, the most pressing problem caused by asbestos is in existing buildings. This asbestos can be released when those structures are torn down, remodeled, or when modifications such as cable wiring mean holes must be drilled in walls.
One report issued in 2015 suggested that asbestos was present in 7 of 10 schools, and a more recent study detected asbestos in Philadelphia school buildings, yet Pruitt refuses to study how children may be affected by the carcinogen. The EPA will also not investigate risks faced by individuals who live in older housing units, which may contain asbestos in their insulation.
Further, as opposed to banning new uses of asbestos, which was intended at the end of the Obama Administration, Pruitt has stated companies must apply to the EPA if they want to import asbestos for new kinds of manufacturing. The EPA has also changed the substances they will define as asbestos, meaning some fibers similar to asbestos will not be called asbestos.
Just as importantly, the EPA will not examine “legacy disposal,” including the effects of 8.8 million pounds of asbestos dumped in hazardous waste landfills, and 13.1 million pounds of asbestos deposited in standard landfills, every year. In a few broad strokes, Trump and Pruitt reduced a saving grace to the health of the American public to a pile of ash.
Putting Profits before People
The refusal to confront the dangers of asbestos has a long history, beginning with industry executives who knew about such hazards for years, but covered that knowledge with denial. As Bill Sells, former executive at the notorious asbestos-using company Johns-Manville, wrote in 1994, concealing this information was “one of the most colossal corporate blunders of the twentieth century.”
Business interests have been all too vigilant against an asbestos ban, and successfully overturned one that the EPA enacted in 1989. As a result, asbestos is still found in building materials such as roofing, as well as in clothing, cosmetics, and other consumer goods.
The Human Toll
In the tangle of politics and policy, we must not forget the human toll that asbestos exacts. The deadly cancer mesothelioma is particularly hazardous because it is difficult to catch in its early stages, since symptoms are similar to other diseases. Additionally, because mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases may take 20-50 years to develop, the link to this carcinogen may not be apparent at first.
Yet the latest studies on asbestos-related deaths reveal the number of fatalities is much higher than previous estimates. Around 255,000 people worldwide, including 39,000 in the U.S., are killed by asbestos yearly. This is the same mortality rate as breast cancer and traffic accidents.
The need for an asbestos ban has never been more apparent, but the Trump administration continues to deny science and ruthlessly gut consumer protections – all in the name of better profit margins for corporations. With 4 months remaining until midterm elections, it’s only a matter of time before we can cast our vote to put people before profits once again.