Senator Calls For EPA Asbestos Review Under New Chemical Law

A prominent senator has joined environmental groups in calling for federal regulators to put asbestos on a short list of priority chemicals, which are to be tested as potential threats to public health. 

In a letter (PDF) sent last week to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) said asbestos should be on a list of 10 chemicals the EPA has to draw up by mid-December. The list will focus on chemicals whose evaluation is a priority for the agency due to the potential they have to pose an unreasonable risk to the public.

“The chemicals selected will drive EPA’s agenda for the next several years,” Senator Boxer noted. “To build confidence in the agency’s ability to deliver meaningful results for our children and families, EPA must consider all forms of asbestos in this initial list of chemicals it acts on.”

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Mesothelioma Lawsuits

Exposure to asbestos can cause the development of mesothelioma. Lawsuits have been filed nationwide against asbestos manufacturers.


The priority list is part of a recently passed revision to long untouched U.S. chemical regulatory laws.

The new Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, signed into law by President Obama on June 22, is the first update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) since it was originally passed in 1976. Critics say the law was weak, offering the EPA no power to regulate potentially harmful chemicals. The new law, however, grants the EPA expanded authority.

The updated law allows the EPA to regulate new chemicals. It also offers the agency the ability to evaluate the safety of existing chemicals.

In July, the Environmental Working Group put out its own list of priority chemicals that it believes the EPA should look at first. Asbestos was on that list, as well as bisphenol-A, and phthalates. All where chemicals the environmental group saw as the greatest threats to public health due to their side effects and widespread use.

Asbestos is toxic even in small amounts, and has banned in many forms for decades, yet it is still in use in some industries. It is frequently used in automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tiles and roofing materials.

Asbestos exposure has been linked to a number of forms of respiratory illnesses and cancer, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

Senator Boxer’s letter notes that the EPA issued a rule banning the major uses of asbestos in 1989, but that rule was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The court’s decision paralyzed EPA’s existing chemicals program for the next two decades,” Senator Boxer wrote. “Asbestos became a poster child for the inadequacy of the law and a major impetus for TSCA reform.”

In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the number of asbestos deaths from mesothelioma were continuing to rise, but were expected to have peaked by now as more time passes since the substance was banned.

Asbestos exposure lawsuits have been one of the largest mass-torts in U.S. history, with more than 600,000 people having filed a case against more than 6,000 defendants after being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other related injuries that were allegedly caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.


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