The Continuing Threat of Asbestos

June/July 2017 VOL 15 No. 3

Larry Olson, PhD.


It may seem strange that we should still be worried about asbestos. Didn't we take care of that problem years ago after we found out how dangerous asbestos was? Except for renovating old buildings, haven't we removed the threat of asbestos exposure? Yet even today 12,000-15,000 Americans a year die from asbestos exposure.

Some 55 nations have instituted a comprehensive ban on asbestos, starting with Iceland in 1983 and the European Union in 2005. But there are many notable exceptions where some type of asbestos use is still legal including China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

Asbestos hasn't been mined in the U.S. since 2002 so all asbestos used in this country depends upon imports. In 2016, the U.S. imported about 750,000 lbs of chrysotile asbestos, 95% from Brazil and 5% from Russia. This was used by the chlor-alkali industry to make semipermeable diaphragms used in the electrolytic process of making chlorine and caustic soda. The argument is that there is very little chance that the public will be exposed to this asbestos. But there are many other imported consumer products containing asbestos whose use is still not banned (see https:// www.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos). These include roofing materials and coatings, automotive parts, gaskets, cement products, and fireproof clothing.

It wasn't supposed to be like this since we've long known that exposure to asbestos was deadly. As the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NISOH) stated in 1980, "All levels of asbestos exposure studied to date have demonstrated asbestos-related disease…there is no level of exposure below which clinical effects do not occur." Although asbestos was heavily regulated in the 1970s and 80s through the Clean Air Act (asbestos is a Hazardous Air Pollutant), the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (dealing with removing asbestos from schools), the Safe Drinking Water Act, and CERCLA which regulates hazardous wastes there were still many uses that did not fall under these rules and were perfectly legal.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, EPA had authority to restrict or prohibit the manufacture, use, or distribution of a chemical if it presents an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. In 1989, EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos containing products. But this rule was challenged by industry and in 1991 it was vacated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the 1976 TSCA law, EPA had to show that the benefits of regulating a chemical outweighed the costs and that the proposed restriction on use of the chemical was the least burdensome way to reduce risk. The Fifth Circuit ruled that EPA had not demonstrated that a ban was the "least burdensome alternative."

But the original TSCA was amended in 2016 by the Frank R. Lautenburg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The new law calls for a revised Risk-Based Safety Standard to "determine whether a chemical substance presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, without consideration of costs or other non-risk factors, including an unreasonable risk to a potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulation identified as relevant to the risk evaluation by the Administrator under the conditions of use." The "least burdensome" requirement was also removed.

The law was signed in June of 2016 and EPA had until December 2016 to choose 10 chemicals for initial chemical risk evaluations. Asbestos was one of those selected. In June 2017, EPA released a scope document indicating how EPA is going to conduct the Risk Evaluation process for asbestos (https:// www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/ asbestos_scope_06-22-17.pdf). If an unreasonable risk is identified, EPA must take final risk management action within two years.

So will we remain one of the few advanced industrial countries that has not banned asbestos? For the sake of my granddaughters I hope not.

September 2018 Vol 16 No. 9