The EPA Just Made It Easier to Use Asbestos

EPA asbestos
The EPA's new proposal regarding asbestos could end up allowing more uses of the dangerous product, despite it being a known carcinogen. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Asbestos is one nasty, cancer-causing mineral. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by virtue of name alone, probably ought to have a say in keeping this group of fibrous minerals, once widely used in manufacturing building materials (among other things), as far away from humans as possible.

So why are people who care about the environment and human health so up in arms about the EPA's "significant new use rule" (SNUR) proposal announced on June 1, 2018? After all, the EPA claims the SNUR would close loopholes regarding asbestos use and would prohibit any "manufacturing, importing or processing" of asbestos that's currently unregulated and identified in the SNUR.


Well it's more complicated than that. And it's political. And money may have something to do with it.

"It has a lot to do with politics, it has to do with big industry and big business and who influences who," Jeff Camplin, the president of Camplin Environmental Services in Rosemont, Illinois, and someone who has testified before Congress on asbestos risks, says. "My position as a safety professional is to say, look, as long as I know a hazard exists or not, I can take appropriate steps."

So, then ... is the EPA creating risk with its new rules on asbestos or lessening it?


The EPA Makes Its Move

Let's back up a bit. As we mentioned, on June 1, 2018, the EPA announced what it calls a "significant new use rule" proposal that "would prevent new uses of asbestos — the first such action on asbestos ever proposed," the statement read. The SNUR "would require manufacturers and importers to receive EPA approval before starting or resuming manufacturing, and importing or processing of asbestos."

That all sounds great. But instead of calling for all new uses of asbestos to be reviewed, the rule includes just 15 specific uses that require federal review. This is why many believe the new rule (combined with another move by the EPA) would actually end up allowing more new uses of asbestos instead of fewer.


Considering the nastiness of the stuff — asbestos kills 40,000 people each year with illnesses like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis — that little bit of political disingenuousness immediately hacked off a whole bunch of environmental, health and safety experts.

In fact, some health groups objected to the EPA's stance on asbestos well before this latest news for one simple reason: More than 50 countries have banned asbestos outright, but the U.S. is not one of them. In 1989, the EPA passed the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule, but that was overturned in 1991. However, the 1991 ruling did keep intact the ban on all new uses of asbestos. But the law still allows several uses for asbestos — including for disc brakes and brake linings, vinyl floor tile, cement piping and some clothing — although the EPA claims that the SNUR "would prohibit these uses."

Still, it's clear to many that the Trump administration isn't going for an all-out ban despite the hazards involved. Linda Reinstein, the president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, had this to say in a statement after the EPA trumpeted the new ruling:

"It is incredulous to know that the EPA has ignored the science, the history and the carnage that asbestos has caused throughout the nation each year. From the World Health Organization to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, there is global consensus that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure or controlled use of asbestos."


Health and Safety vs. Big Business

Something potentially much more dangerous is at work here, too, something done not with the health of the people or the planet in mind (according to EPA critics), but rather the bottom line of big business.

In conjunction with its new SNUR proposal on asbestos, the EPA will now, it says, change how it evaluates the risk of certain chemicals (including ones in asbestos) covered under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Now, it will not take into account risks posed by chemicals in the air, ground or water.


From "The Chemical Industry Scores a Big Win at the E.P.A.," in The New York Times:

"Instead, the agency will focus on possible harm caused by direct contact with a chemical in the workplace or elsewhere. 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."

That will, according to reporting by Fast Company, effectively turn a "blind eye to improper disposal, contamination, emissions, and other long-term environmental and health risks associated with chemical products, including those derived from asbestos."

This is a clear victory, as The Times says, for the chemical industry and, quite possibly, for those wanting to import or use asbestos in building materials.

"The EPA abruptly retreated from a posture of moving toward more protection for Americans from these dangerous chemicals to a position that can only be seen as placating the chemical industry," Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said in a statement.

The EWG, along with government watchdog group American Oversight, is petitioning the courts for any contact former EPA chief Pruitt had with chemical manufacturers before this agency's decision. "The American people deserve the fullest account of how Pruitt and his aides may have colluded with chemical companies and their lobbyists," Benesh says. "When a top public health agency has the power to ban asbestos, and it doesn't, something is amiss."

Other possible winners in this are manufacturers, including Russia, which stands to become the leading exporter of asbestos to the U.S.

An aside: President Trump himself, who made his bones in real estate before politics, is evidently a believer in asbestos. He claimed on Twitter in 2012 that New York City's Twin Towers would not have "burned down" if asbestos had been used there and, according to Rolling Stone, in his 1997 book "The Art of the Comeback", Trump wrote that asbestos is "100 percent safe, once applied."


What's Next for Asbestos?

Asbestos is still being used in what Camplin calls "non-friable" uses. "Friable" refers to materials that can easily be crumbled by hand. If something with asbestos is friable — like old ceiling panels or insulation — the fibers become airborne and easily inhaled.

Non-friable uses of asbestos, though, as in cement blocks or pipes or disc brakes, are thought to be much safer. But even in those cases, asbestos can eventually be risky.


"Cement piping is still legal to use and manufacture in the United States. The EPA currently estimates that there are about 500,000 miles of cement water lines carrying our water supply," says Camplin, who's also a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals. "Over the years, these pipes are deteriorating, and we're getting higher amounts of asbestos in our drinking water supply.

"What happens when all that water evaporates, those fibers are left in our environment. I think the risk of continuing to use cement asbestos pipes is something that needs to be looked at. It's one of those hidden hazards that's out there."