EPA Ignored Advice from Staff Experts When Issuing New Asbestos Rule
May 8, 2019
More than a dozen senior officials and experts at the Environmental Protection Agency urged the EPA to ban asbestos outright, a new report shows.
Two internal memos obtained by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and shared with the New York Times reveal the EPA’s own scientists and lawyers advised the agency to issue a complete ban of asbestos instead of the recent regulations that only restricted its domestic use.
In the memos, dated Aug. 10, 2018, EPA staff members wrote that the agency “should seek to ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit.”
Asbestos is a known carcinogen. Exposure to microscopic asbestos fibers can cause malignant mesothelioma and other serious diseases.
The memos also noted there are adequate alternatives to asbestos.
In April, the EPA issued a new regulation that requires agency approval before importing most asbestos products.
The rule was a tougher take on the EPA’s originally proposed Significant New Use Rule, but the internal memos reveal experts within the agency feel it doesn’t go far enough.
“Given the significant number of asbestos sites that EPA has to clean up due to improper disposal or abandonment, opening the door to new uses of asbestos is not an economically-wise or health-protective idea,” the memos said.
Experts Question EPA’s Review Process
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the rule gives regulators “unprecedented authorities” to prohibit asbestos products from entering or re-entering the U.S. market.
“Prior to this new rule, EPA did not have the ability to prevent or restrict certain asbestos products from being reintroduced into the market,” Wheeler said in a statement.
Alexandra Dunn, the EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, said the rule gave the agency the power to “close the door” on certain asbestos products and uses.
The rule requires products such as asbestos vinyl floor tiles, insulation, cement products and roofing felt to get agency approval before they can be imported, produced or sold in the United States.
But the memos show in-house experts at the EPA consider the agency’s review process seriously flawed. Experts criticized the agency’s outdated classification of six types of asbestos, noting that the Toxic Substances Control Act was established more than 30 years ago when the EPA lacked knowledge about additional types of asbestos fibers.
“Given the current state of knowledge, relying on the decades old AHERA/TSCA definition will potentially limit the notifications that EPA receives for significant new uses of asbestos,” the memos said. “All currently known fiber types should be included in the definition of asbestos so that EPA will be assured of receiving notifications and associated information about significant new uses for any asbestos.”
EPA experts also noted that legacy uses of asbestos still pose a threat to public health, noting that “exposure to older uses of asbestos is just as dangerous as exposure to newer uses.”
Homes, schools, churches and other buildings built before 1990 likely still contain asbestos products.
“Regulated industries contact EPA when they have been surprised to find out that their buildings and other facilities were constructed with asbestos, when they had been assuming asbestos had been banned a long time before,” the staff members wrote. “If asbestos was banned, then these surprises would not continue to take place.”
Review of Asbestos Due in December
The U.S. remains one of the only industrialized nations in the world without a comprehensive ban on asbestos. The last asbestos mine in the U.S. closed in 2002, but asbestos-containing products such as sheet gaskets and aftermarket automotive brakes continue to cross American borders.
A congressionally mandated risk evaluation of asbestos is due by December. The results of that review, as part of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, will shape the future of asbestos in the United States.
More than 60 countries have banned the import, export and all uses of the toxic mineral, including the entire European Union, Australia, Japan and Canada.
Brazil, which for years supplied the U.S. with most of its chrysotile asbestos, voted for a ban in November 2017.
The U.S. imported 750 tons of raw asbestos in 2018, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries report. All of it was used by the chloralkali industry, which manufactures semipermeable diaphragms to make chlorine.
Asbestos exposure of any kind can lead to serious health conditions. In the memos, EPA staff members criticized the agency’s review for considering only lung cancer and mesothelioma as possible harmful effects of asbestos exposure.
“There are other significant lethal and non-lethal harms from asbestos exposures, including asbestosis and other respiratory ailments, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, larynx and pharynx,” they wrote. “These additional harms should be included if there is to be a comprehensive evaluation of the risks from exposure to asbestos.”