Federal environmental experts warn that current uses of asbestos places workers, consumers and even bystanders at an “unreasonable” risk for deadly adverse health effects associated with exposure to asbestos, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft risk evaluation (PDF) for current uses of asbestos on March 30, finding that the risks linked to to the toxic fibers are too great. The assessment looked at asbestos use in the chlor-alkali industry, sheet gaskets and other types of gaskets and automotive brakes.
The risks of asbestos exposure, which can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, have been known for about a century, although they did not get widely publicized until 1964. Most modern, first-world countries banned asbestos use in its entirety decades ago. But not the United States.
While most uses were banned in this country, there is still about 750 metric tons of asbestos used in the U.S. every year. The EPA was given a chance to ban asbestos again in 2016, as part of a new chemical safety law meant to require safety reviews of key chemicals, but refused.
The EPA again refused to put an outright ban on asbestos in place in April 2019, as part of a significant new use rule. That decision came amid public comments by doctors, health experts and consumers who supported a ban.
In May 2019, The New York Times published internal memos showing even the EPA’s own experts were against the decision and thought remaining asbestos uses should be banned. At the time, EPA personnel objected to claims that “new uses” of asbestos could be safer, of narrow definitions of what asbestos is, and also complained that the EPA was only considering lung cancer and mesothelioma as potential asbestos harms.
In this latest draft evaluation, EPA’s own experts are again telling the agency that there is no reason to keep any asbestos products on the market. However, some outside observers are already anticipating the EPA will bow to industry pressure and soften the assessment in its final version.
“EPA’s draft risk evaluation preliminarily found unreasonable risk to workers, occupational non-users, consumers and bystanders.EPA found that workers, occupational non-users, consumers, and bystanders could be adversely affected by asbestos under certain conditions of use,” the draft evaluation determined. “These initial determinations are based on a draft risk evaluation of the reasonably available information and are not EPA’s final determinations on whether this chemical presents unreasonable risks under the conditions of use.”
Currently, asbestos is banned for use in corrugated paper, roll board, commercial paper, and specialty paper, flooring felt and new commercial uses that begin after August 25, 1989. However, even though the fibrous material is toxic even in small amounts, it is still in use in some industries. It is frequently used in automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tiles and roofing materials.
The EPA indicates it will be accepting public comment on the draft risk evaluation for 60 days after the Federal Register Notice is published in docket EPA-HQ-OPPT-2019-0501. The notice did not appear to be published as of press time.
The agency is also holding a virtual peer review meeting of its Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals on April 27-30 to go over the draft evaluation’s findings.