Asbestos in America: New use could bring new problems

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen. More than 50,000 people have died from this disease and other asbestos-related conditions in the last decade, and about 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. To date, there is no known cure. Yet the Trump Administration is seeking to loosen asbestos regulations, despite the recent resurgence of asbestos exposure cases in the United States.

The most common type of mesothelioma (pleural) develops in the chest cavity and lungs and accounts for 85 percent of cases. Though asbestos is not immediately harmful when it is undisturbed, if an asbestos-containing material is broken, microscopic asbestos fibers can be released into the air. When inhaled, these fibers can become stuck in the lining of the lungs, creating scar tissue and leading to the development of mesothelioma tumors.

Asbestos is currently banned in 60+ countries, but it is still legal in the United States. Though regulations exist, and we are no longer exposed through items like fake snow or crock pots, regulations are not strict enough to stop all use or importation of goods containing asbestos. In fact, any material that contains less than one percent asbestos is not formally considered an “asbestos-containing material” by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, studies have shown that even small levels of asbestos exposure can be dangerous and may lead to life-threatening illnesses.  

Into this mix comes the Trump Administration’s EPA rules. On June 1 of this year, the EPA published a proposed regulation, the “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR), which would loosen restrictions on certain chemicals, including asbestos. Those restrictions are written into the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which President Obama signed in 2016 as an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). The law made significant changes to how the EPA regulates chemicals in the U.S.

Pursuant to the law, on December 19, 2016, the EPA published a list of 10 chemicals it would evaluate to comply with the Lautenberg Act. As noted above, the list included asbestos. The SNUR, however, could make it possible to introduce new uses of asbestos. This is bad policy.

Mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease cases are increasing in age groups not typically associated with asbestos exposure. This is due in part to what scientists and medical professionals are calling a “third wave” of asbestos exposure which results from damaging asbestos that is already in place or coming into contact with contaminated products. Instances like this summer’s pipe burst in New York City are prime examples. The use of asbestos in older pipes and fittings continues to pose threats. In addition, asbestos also lurks at home and can be unexpectedly released during renovations.

In our view, the SNUR that EPA is proposing is dangerous. Asbestos exposure has been linked to illnesses and aggressive diseases like mesothelioma since the early 20th Century. Asbestos has historically been associated with industrial jobs like mining, manufacturing, construction, and shipbuilding, but asbestos could also be found in more than 3,000 consumer products when it was at the height of its use between 1930 and 1970. It is also the only known cause of mesothelioma which is a dangerous disease: prognosis and the life expectancy of patients usually range between one and two years. We should be working to reduce exposure to asbestos in every way possible, not loosen regulations allowing greater exposure.

NCL applauds groups such as the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center that are working to fight the easing of restrictions on asbestos. The Trump EPA’s attack on health and safety regulations that are intended to reduce illness and disease is unwise. We hope voices of reason will prevail and result in pressure on the EPA to rescind the SNUR.