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EPA Bringing Asbestos Back– One of the Deadliest Workplace Toxins in Existence

EPA Bringing Asbestos Back– One of the Deadliest Workplace Toxins in Existence

Over the summer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics announced a proposed “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR) for asbestos, an undisputed carcinogen. SNURs are a mechanism within the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that require the EPA to specifically approve a chemical when it is used in a significantly new way or in a significantly new mixture. Sadly, for potentially tens of thousands of unsuspecting American workers and their loved ones, it appears that this EPA is using a SNUR process, in a particularly cruel bit of political doublethink that could easily increase American lung cancer and mesothelioma deaths, to quietly expand asbestos usage in the United States under the (false) guise of an “unprecedented” set of new protections against the dangers of asbestos which require manufacturers “to receive EPA approval before starting or resuming manufacturing, and importing or processing of asbestos” to hear former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (who resigned amid accusations of misconduct) tell it. 

A substance like asbestos, that everyone agrees causes terminal, human cancers, does not need a SNUR process, because it doesn’t matter if asbestos is being used in a new way or in a new mixture. It is always going to be a deadly poison with no known safe level of exposure. Period. In fact, it is precisely because the health and litigation risks of asbestos are so great that there are many unregulated uses for asbestos that are nevertheless effectively dead. But, the current administration seeks to change all that, by using the SNUR process to grant formal approval to some, if not many, of those uses if they pass a safety review that many scientists find flawed.

The TSCA was undergoing a major overhaul that began under the Obama administration and then transitioned when the Trump administration took over. But the new EPA has “reinterpreted” the TSCA mandate in radically divergent ways that, instead of protecting American workers, as originally intended (by simply banning all currently unregulated uses of asbestos for instance), now look to put a potentially large swath of the working public and their loved ones (who face the risk of second-hand contamination), at even greater risk of contracting terminal cancer. A leaked opinion from EPA lawyer Mark Seltzer, an attorney advisor to the EPA Chemical Risk and Reporting Enforcement Branch who worked on the SNUR and openly concluded that: “This new approach allows asbestos-containing products that are not currently used to be used in the future.”

According to critics, the path to this new future use lies with the way this EPA is using the SNUR for asbestos. First, the SNUR concerns only 15 specific uses the EPA “believes” to be comprehensive. Only addressing a few potential uses sets up the argument that anything outside those 15 listed uses, are not of concern and can be legally implemented. Second, and most troubling, is the way this EPA will evaluate the risk of these “currently unregulated former uses.” Its approach is not include information from existing uses of asbestos, notwithstanding the significant body of scientific work around the health risks stemming from those uses. This means that the known dangers posed by, for example, asbestos-containing tiles, adhesives and piping in millions of homes and commercial buildings nationwide, the 8.8 million pounds a year of asbestos deposited in hazardous landfills or the 13.1 million pounds discarded in routine dump sites, will not be considered in determining whether a particular use of asbestos is safe. Making it easier to say something is safe by simply ignoring a century’s worth of the uncontroversial science on asbestos as a human carcinogen, means far fewer restrictions or prohibitions will be placed on the use of asbestos.

But it won’t matter to the landfill worker or the pipefitter or the father and son doing demolition whether the EPA declared the original use of the asbestos safe, when they’re moving it around or tearing it off and breathing it in. It won’t matter to their spouses or their children when they get terminal cancer decades down the road from doing dad’s asbestos-contaminated laundry. Unfortunately, I have seen, up close and personal, the devastating, awful toll that lax laws and political cover-ups, like these, have taken on the American workforce. This kind of dirty politics, putting people’s lives on the line in the name of “infinite growth” (in stock price), should have remained a long-dead relic of a dark period in American history. We need industries and lawmakers that work to create a future, not steal one from others. 

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