A recent decision by U.S. regulators to allow continued and new uses of asbestos is being slammed in an editorial published last week in a prominent medical journal, questioning the decision in the face of years of evidence that asbestos exposure can cause slow and painful deaths.
The editorial was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on July 10, castigating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Trump Administration as a whole for failing to enact an asbestos ban, despite clear and present dangers to public health.
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan and Dr. Richard A. Lemen are the authors of the editorial, and both are former senior officials of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Lemen was its deputy director and is a retired assistant surgeon general.
The editorial notes that every year nearly 40,000 Americans die from asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer. Most of these deaths are painful and protracted, and treatment of the various conditions cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the editorial.
The authors indicate that the risks of asbestos exposure have been known for about a century, although they did not get widely publicized until 1964. Most modern, first-world countries have 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.
Asbestos was identified as one of the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed. However, the Trump Administration halted the review, and it has been stalled ever since, despite provisions in the law which make the reviews a requirement.
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 that supported a ban. In May, The New York Times published internal memos showing even the EPA’s own experts were against the decision.
Instead, the agency allowed manufacturers to seek approval for new uses of asbestos, as well as some older uses, despite known health risks associated with the toxic substance.
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.
“We believe that this administration’s brazen attempt to continue and potentially expand asbestos use in the United States is an affront to public health and human dignity,” the editorial states. “It signals acceptance of the asbestos industry’s long-disproven claims that chrysotile asbestos, the only form of asbestos on international markets today, is safe and that it is possible to work safely with asbestos. It ignores more than five decades of medical research that has established beyond any reasonable doubt that even in very small amounts, all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, can cause cancer.”
The writers threw their support behind a bill put forward in March by New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr.: the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019. It would ban not only production, but also use and importation of asbestos in the United States.
Exposure to asbestos has been linked to a number of serious and life-threatening health risks, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other ailments.
Mesothelioma is a particularly deadly cancer, which is only known to result from breathing asbestos fibers. As a result of a long latency period of between 20 and 40 years between exposure to asbestos and diagnosis, the cancer is often at a very advanced stage by the time it is discovered and usually results in death.
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.