The EPA will enter the final stage of approval for a new rule that would allow manufacturers to use asbestos in new products, pending an EPA review. If implemented, this significant new use rule (SNUR) would reintroduce the use of asbestos into new building materials, reversing regulations that restricted “new uses” of asbestos.
How Is Asbestos Not Already Banned In The US?
For most, asbestos is up there with trans fats and UV rays as Objectively Harmful Things. And for good reason. Asbestos exposure, characterized by inhalation of asbestos fibers found most commonly in building materials, is linked to adverse health conditions like inflammation and cancer. Here’s the National Cancer Institute:
Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (2, 3, 7, 8). According to IARC, there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma (a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen), and cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary (8). Although rare, mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. There is limited evidence that asbestos exposure is linked to increased risks of cancers of the stomach, pharynx, and colorectum (8).
[National Cancer Institute]
Despite being a known carcinogen and despite it being banned in 60 countries, the US has struggled to implement an asbestos ban of its own. The Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center has a coherent timeline of asbestos regulation here in the US. Essentially, in 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gave the EPA the authority to regulate toxic chemicals like asbestos, and in 1989 the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out rule would have outright banned the substance. But a court appeal in 1991 ruled that the ban would have been too burdensome, a violation of the TSCA, and limited the rule to only new uses of asbestos.
Throughout the years, it’s clear not much progress toward an actual ban has been made. All of these bills and other asbestos regulations passed over the years helped keep the presence of asbestos down, but that only does so much for public safety. The reality is that millions of people are still being exposed to asbestos today. Because of the nature of these diseases, it takes decades after exposure for symptoms to show. Estimates say at least 20 million Americans will develop mesothelioma in their lifetime.
It would be inaccurate to say that asbestos is illegal here in the US — only that the restriction on new asbestos products going on almost three decades now has arguably forced manufacturers to figure out alternatives.
The SNUR Would Expand, Not Limit, The Use Of Asbestos
Environmental advocates argue that the EPA’s SNUR would undo decades of regulations.
“The end result will be a seriously inadequate risk evaluation that fails to address major contributors to the heavy and growing toll of asbestos mortality and disease in the United States,” says Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, in a statement issued in June. “According to the EPA, the SNUR ‘would require manufacturers and importers to receive EPA approval before starting or resuming manufacturing, and importing or processing of asbestos.’ Yet, the best way to prevent new uses is to have a complete ban of asbestos in the U.S.”
“There is no need for an asbestos SNUR; in fact, its provisions are counter productive to protection against health hazards from asbestos exposure,” writes Andrew F. Oberta, an asbestos researcher and public health advocate, in a public comment filed in response to the SNUR. “The proposal describes an approval procedure inappropriate to a substance for which the default should be rejection for any specific use in the absence of an outright ban for all uses of asbestos.”
In another comment publicly submitted to the EPA for consideration, Richard Haffey, a licensed asbestos inspector and air quality consultant, argues that the SNUR, while on on the face seems to implement more regulation of asbestos, will actually undermine current regulations. “Rather than an outright ban of asbestos in all its forms, without loopholes or exemptions, the SNUR positions the EPA Administrator to arbitrate so-called ‘significant new uses,’ writes Haffey. “In each case, these important terms have been manipulated in earlier stages of the asbestos TSCA revision proceedings to allow for a decision-making process with a weighted outcome of asbestos acceptance injurious to human health and the environment.”
Of Course, There Are Ties To Trump (And Russia)
This past July, the Environmental Working Group found a Facebook post from Russian asbestos manufacturer Uralasbest touting pallets of asbestos stamped with Donald Trump’s face. “Donald is on our side! … He supported the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who stated that his agency would no longer deal with negative effects potentially derived from products containing asbestos,” the post states.
A Washington Post report on the curious branding practices of the Russian mining company found links to, you guessed it, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Uralasbest, which reportedly counts Russian President Vladimir Putin as an ally, operates an enormous mine in Asbest, seven miles long, a mile and a half wide and about 1,000 feet deep for an area that is nearly half the size of Manhattan, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The company did not return a request for immediate comment.
Perhaps coincidentally, in covering former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s announcement that the agency would no longer consider evaluating the health impact of currently-existence asbestos, Newsweek surfaced evidence that Trump has, historically, been pro-asbestos:
In his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, Trump argued that the association of the chemical with health risks was part of a mob-created conspiracy. “I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented,” he wrote.
This Doesn’t End With Just Asbestos
While Pruitt, perhaps the most hilariously corrupt Trump administration official, resigned as EPA chief last month there are a number of initiatives in progress at the agency, which is now largely staffed by former chemistry industry lobbyists, that will drastically undermine decades of environmental and public health policy. They are, unfortunately, not as plainly evil as allowing the manufacture of new asbestos products.
In April, The New Republic’s Emily Atkin reported on how the EPA’s new policy of refusing to use research that includes confidential subject data mirrors that of the tobacco industry tactics to suppress research on the dangers of second-hand smoke. Instead of trying to address research, the EPA is trying to discredit it.
Glantz says this is a tactic originated by the tobacco industry, which in the 1990s was getting increasingly frustrated by the number of studies linking their product to health problems. “They realized that, rather than fighting every single study that came out linking them to cancer, if they could get the rules of evidence changed, they wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Glantz said. So, tobacco companies came up with a reasonable-sounding set of rules for “transparency” in research, and created an organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition to advocate for them.
In June, The New York Times’s Eric Lipton found that EPA had decided that in reviewing the health hazards of potentially toxic chemicals — mandated by a law passed by Obama in 2016 — it would only examine the hazards presented by direct contact, conveniently neglecting to consider the health effects of substances found within the air, water or ground. In other words the EPA is only interested in the harm produced by spilling a potentially toxic chemical on you, and not the potential exposure people might encounter literally anywhere else.
The approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals — leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance — will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.
The approach is a big victory for the chemical industry, which has repeatedly pressed the E.P.A. to narrow the scope of its risk evaluations.