Asbestos, a mineral linked to various deadly health conditions and cancer such as mesothelioma, may finally get the scrutiny it needs so regulators can ban the toxic substance in the U.S.
The lethal mineral is now among the top 10 substances the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must review in accordance to the newly reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which granted the federal agency more leverage against hazardous chemicals.
In June, President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law, updating the almost three-decade-old TSCA, which wasn’t as effective as it should be when it came to protecting Americans against toxic substances.
“Under the new law, we now have the power to require safety reviews of all chemicals in the marketplace,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the environment, issued this statement: “The potentially dangerous chemicals on this list are long overdue for attention from EPA. This action is a sign that the reformed law, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, is on the right track.”
Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, looks forward to the possibility that the new law opens the way for an asbestos ban.
“We are hopeful that they can really slam the door on this nasty chemical and get it out of commerce,” she said.
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Next Steps the EPA Takes Regarding Asbestos
In a list of 90 chemicals listed in the EPA’s 2014 TSCA Work Plan, asbestos and nine other chemicals ranked the most problematic based on their potential for high hazard and exposure, as well as other considerations.
The EPA also took into account recommendations from the public, industry, environmental and public health groups, and members of Congress, especially giving weight to chemicals already under assessment for risks.
However, there is much work EPA officials must complete now that it added asbestos to the top 10 list of dangerous chemicals.
- Step 1: EPA officials will release a scoping document within the next six months, explaining the hazards, exposure, conditions of use, and the potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations the agency plans to consider for the evaluation.
- Step 2: Federal law allows the agency three years to complete risk evaluations to determine whether asbestos causes an unreasonable risk to humans and the environment.
- Step 3: If the EPA discovers an unreasonable risk, the legislation allows two years to mitigate the hazard.
“There’s no cost-benefit analysis. I guess [that] is the best way to explain it,” Meuninck said on Michigan Radio WUOM-FM. “So [if] the hazard is high enough…after the risk assessment for a chemical like asbestos, they can ban it. Whereas, that was not possible previously.”
Asbestos Is a Known Killer
Asbestos causes the fatal cancer mesothelioma, which claims 3,000 lives each year in the United States.
Doctors diagnose most people with the pleural type of the disease, which forms on the lining of the lungs, but the cancer can also form around the lining of the abdomen or heart. Symptoms usually show 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos.
While asbestos consumption in the U.S. has decreased significantly in recent decades, it still exists in housing and public buildings constructed prior to the 1970s. It’s often found in flooring, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation.
EPA’s List of Chemicals Is Expected to Grow
As the EPA completes each risk evaluation of the first 10 chemicals, new toxic substances will be added to that list and undergo the same investigative process.
The TSCA requires the EPA to have at least 20 risk evaluations underway at any given time by the end of 2019.
Jones said the EPA can ensure it will “deliver on the promise to better protect public health and the environment.”