EPA Finds Asbestos Use Poses Risk to Chloralkali Workers

Asbestos Exposure & Bans
Raw chrysotile asbestos

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an asbestos draft risk evaluation Monday that found serious health dangers to workers in the chloralkali industry, the country’s last remaining user of raw asbestos.

There is an “unreasonable risk to workers, occupational non-users, consumers and bystanders” the EPA found when evaluating several asbestos products still being imported and used today.

The draft risk evaluation was an initial review of asbestos by the EPA under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

“It is being disseminated for peer review purposes and is not final,” an EPA spokesperson told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “It is a draft, and may change.”

A review of the draft by the EPA Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals will take place April 27-30. Public review and comment is encouraged through May before any final determinations are made.

The EPA will then have the option of proposing further regulations to prohibit or limit the manufacture, use, distribution, processing or disposal of asbestos.

EPA Findings Could Threaten Chloralkali Industry

The chloralkali industry, which has openly opposed the banning of asbestos, uses the product to manufacture semipermeable diaphragms for making chlorine. There are 11 chloralkali factories throughout the U.S., producing one-third of all domestic chlorine.

Although preliminary, the EPA review is a serious threat to the industry.

According to the latest U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Report, only 100 metric tons of asbestos were imported in 2019, a substantial drop from the year before and the smallest amount since records were first kept in 1910.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once used ubiquitously in many products. It was valued for its heat resistance and tensile strength, but is now heavily regulated.

The inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Today, the manufacture or use of asbestos products such as vinyl floor tiles, insulation, corrugated paper, commercial paper and many other building materials is prohibited.

U.S. consumers have been dependent on imports of asbestos since 2002, when the last mine in the country was closed.

The biggest problem in the U.S. today is legacy asbestos, products that were made and used more than 30 years ago and remain in place throughout commercial and residential construction.

Asbestos Occupational Threats Remain

Among the findings in the recent evaluation were occupational conditions in use today that present an unreasonable risk to health:

  • Processing and industrial use of asbestos diaphragms in the chloralkali industry
  • Industrial use and disposal of asbestos-containing brake blocks in the oil industry
  • Processing and industrial use of asbestos-containing sheet gaskets in chemical production
  • Commercial use and disposal of aftermarket automotive asbestos-containing brakes linings
  • Commercial use and disposal of other vehicle friction products
  • Commercial use and disposal of other asbestos-containing gaskets

The executive summary of the draft also cited the risk to occupational nonusers, consumers and bystanders, particularly from aftermarket automotive brakes and gaskets.

The EPA did not evaluate hazards or exposures to the general population in this risk evaluation.

Although there are a handful of different types of asbestos, this review dealt only with chrysotile, the only form known to be imported, processed or distributed in the U.S.

EPA Review Cites Some Exceptions

The one notable exception to any health dangers in the use of asbestos was the specialized National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) transport plane, nicknamed “Super Guppy.”

According to the draft, the import, use, distribution and disposal of asbestos-containing brakes for the plane did not present unreasonable risk to anyone’s health.

The EPA also did not find any unreasonable risk to the environment under any conditions of use that were examined.

The actual import and distribution of asbestos and asbestos products did not present unreasonable risk, the report said.

Asbestos is the ninth of the first 10 chemicals and substances to undergo risk evaluation under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Asbestos Risk Evaluation Could Change

In April 2019, the EPA issued a Significant New Use Rule that amended the TSCA to prohibit the restarting of any previously discontinued uses of asbestos without review and consent by the EPA.

Legislative efforts to completely ban asbestos have been pushed in Congress throughout the past decade, but none have been successful.

“The preliminary conclusions, findings and determinations in this draft risk evaluation are for the purposes of identifying whether asbestos presents unreasonable risk or no unreasonable risk under the conditions of use,” the draft summary states. “The final risk evaluation may change.”

paper with magnifying glass
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