The EPA is Re-Evaluating Asbestos: What You Need to Know

Charles MacGregor, a representative from the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, brought an issue regarding asbestos fiber inhalation after natural disasters/home destruction to the CEC’s attention. His article highlights asbestos’ many uses and how it poses a major health risk to individuals living in places that experience major wild-fire damage, such as in California. Below is Charles’ article titled “The EPA is Re-Evaluating Asbestos: What You Need to Know”:

If you’ve spent any time in an older home that hasn’t been renovated in a while, chances are good you’ve been in close proximity to building materials and other products likely to contain asbestos. Not all that long ago, the mineral could be found in thousands of products, ranging from crock pots and ironing board covers, to fireproof clothing, vinyl floor tiles, roofing tar, cements and even siding.

Asbestos is incredibly durable and capable of resisting chemicals and heat, which is why in older homes the mineral is often found near areas or products that generate heat or may be exposed to heat for an extended period of time. For example, millboard may be placed underneath a furnace or wood stove, and asbestos wraps may be used as an insulator on pipes. But while the mineral does come with a handful of benefits, it also runs the risk of causing several diseases, including mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of organs.

Mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis, is caused by accidental ingestion or inhalation of asbestos fibers. In many cases, those who are diagnosed with either disease were not exposed to asbestos recently, but rather exposure took place decades ago. For example, a pipefitter may have been using asbestos pipe insulation while working 40 years ago, and is just now showing symptoms of mesothelioma. This is mainly due to the long latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases, which often take anywhere from 10-50 years to fully develop.

In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed by Congress and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. As part of the TSCA, several forms of asbestos were banned and heavy regulations were put in place for other forms. Under these guidelines, several types of asbestos products were banned, including corrugated paper, flooring felt and rollboard. It also blocked the inclusion of asbestos in products that previously didn’t include the mineral.

Thirteen years later, the EPA attempted to issue a final ruling that would phase out asbestos use over several years, but the ruling was later overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. While some parts of the phase out were upheld, much of the initial plan was rolled back. The EPA was left in a sort of regulatory limbo regarding asbestos until June 2016, when Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. As a result, several new amendments were issued, including one requiring the agency to have ongoing evaluations of chemicals over time, starting with an initial ten. Most of the first ten listed by the EPA in December had hard-to-pronounce names but sticking out on that list was asbestos, reigniting a nearly 30-year-old debate.

An evaluation of asbestos is not expected to be complete for a while, but the agency has already taken several steps toward eventually making a decision. In June, the EPA issued a scoping document highlighting what asbestos applications would be included in the study and offering a general view of what industries still use the mineral in manufacturing and other applications. In September, the public commenting period was closed and a problem formulation document is expected in the next couple of months.

Dozens of countries, and nearly 60 in all, have taken actions to ban asbestos use to prevent accidental exposure. Just last year, Canada passed legislation promising to ban asbestos use by 2018, joining the entire European Union and others like Australia and Japan with prohibitions in place. Although the U.S. has not fully banned asbestos, heavy restrictions regarding its use and a growing market of safer and cost-effective replacements have caused the mineral’s use in the U.S. to drastically decrease from more than 800,000 tons in 1973, to only 340 metric tons of imported raw asbestos brought into the U.S. in 2016.