Chloralkali Industry Wants Exception to Proposed US Asbestos Ban

Asbestos Exposure & Bans
Reading Time: 5 mins
Publication Date: 06/25/2019

Written by Tim Povtak

Chlorine cylinder room

The influential American Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C., would likely drop its opposition to an across-the-board ban on asbestos use provided an exemption remains for the chloralkali industry.

Mike Walls, ACC vice president for regulatory affairs, clarified his position last month during a congressional Environment and Climate Change subcommittee hearing to discuss the latest legislative effort to ban all asbestos.

“We certainly are not opposing a ban for all other uses of asbestos. I just want to make that clear,” Walls said. “The ACC’s opposition [on legislation] is focused on the impact on the chloralkali industry, and the supply of chlorine to this nation.”

Lawmakers will soon be debating the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019, which would prohibit the manufacture, processing and distribution of asbestos in all forms. It would take effect one year after enactment.

An estimated 10,000 people in the U.S. die each year from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Walls said that taking asbestos away from the chloralkali industry, which already is highly regulated, would have a wide-reaching negative effect, leaving manufacturers without a viable short-term alternative.

“A blanket ban that includes the chloralkali industry’s use of asbestos would have significant impact on the supply of chlorine, which could in turn jeopardize public health,” he said. “Chlorine is essential to ensuring access to safe drinking water for millions of American families, lifesaving health care and pharmaceutical products.”

The Only User of Raw Asbestos

The U.S. imported 750 tons of raw asbestos in 2018. The chloralkali industry consumed all of it, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Mineral report.

It is used primarily to manufacture semipermeable fireproof diaphragms that separate chlorine from the sodium hydroxide.

Small amounts of processed asbestos also were imported in a variety of products, including roofing materials, automobile brakes and clutches, oilfield brake blocks and diaphragms.

In his testimony, Walls said that one-third of chlorine produced in the U.S. came from asbestos diaphragms.

He testified that human exposures to toxic asbestos are prevented by personal protection equipment, appropriate engineering controls, rigorous training and federal regulations that mandate specific disposal requirements of used diaphragms.

There are 11 chloralkali plants today in the U.S. using asbestos diaphragm technology to make chlorine, according to Healthy Building Network.

Disposal reports vary widely among the plants. Diaphragms, which are not recycled, become part of solid waste landfills around the country.

“That use is and will continue to be appropriately controlled to ensure that it does not pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment,” Walls said in his testimony.

Asbestos Alternatives Are Being Used Successfully

Despite Wall’s assurances, many in the industry already have found alternatives to asbestos for diaphragm cells in the making of chlorine.

According to Celeste Monforton, an environmental and occupational health specialist at Texas State University who also testified before Congress last month, only one of 75 plants throughout the European Union still use asbestos diaphragms in the production of chlorine.

Many have found lower-cost, longer-lifetime diaphragm options that reduce disposal costs.

“It is true that in other countries, they use other technologies,” Walls said. “But it is not a simple matter of dropping in an alternative, switching the plant back on, and being able to produce. We are talking about a transition time that is significant, that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Similar legislation to the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019 has been introduced in past years but failed to advance through Congress.

Although the use of asbestos in the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent decades, the rate of disease has remained steady, much of it because of legacy asbestos.

EPA Conducting Asbestos Risk Assessment

Older homes and commercial buildings remain full of asbestos products, which become more dangerous as they age and become brittle.

More than 60 countries already have banned asbestos, although only two — Brazil and Japan — are among the 10 most populous countries in the world. Colombia announced its ban earlier this month.

While a ban in the U.S. is moving slowly through the legislative process, the EPA is in the midst of a risk-assessment review of the limited and still ongoing uses of asbestos.

The review is part of Congress’ 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave the EPA more authority to regulate new and existing chemicals.

The deadline for the final asbestos risk assessment is in December. If unreasonable risk to human health or environment is determined, the EPA will propose new regulations to address those risks.

Walls believes no new legislation should be imposed until the EPA has finished its risk assessment.

“Imposition of a blanket ban on asbestos use without the benefit of the EPA’s anticipated risk evaluation, and without the benefit of information on risk management measures … undermines the process,” he said.

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