A significant new use rule (SNUR) proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration allowing companies that want to start or resume importing or manufacturing asbestos or asbestos-containing products to apply for EPA approval could increase the use of the carcinogenic mineral in the U.S. and expose more workers to serious health risks.
Asbestos is a durable and fire-resistant fibrous mineral that was widely used around the world to make various products including building materials like insulation and roof shingles, fire-resistant fabrics, and friction products like clutches and brakes. It can also be found in talcum powder products, another mineral found naturally in rock.
More than 60 years ago, asbestos was linked to serious illnesses including the chronic and incurable lung disease asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare but deadly form of cancer that develops in the tissue lining the lungs, abdomen and other internal organs. The onset of mesothelioma symptoms can take anywhere from 15 to 50 years to surface. Once diagnosed, the disease usually proves deadly within 12 to 24 months after diagnosis.
People exposed to asbestos in the workplace are at risk of swallowing or inhaling the microscopic fibers, which can lodge in the lungs or other organs and, over time, cause serious diseases. Airborne fibers can also cling to workers’ clothes and travel home with them, creating the risk for secondary exposure to workers’ loved ones.
Because asbestos is so toxic, the use of the carcinogen is now banned in 65 countries, but is still used in the manufacture of products and the use of those products in the U.S. However, its use was significantly reduced since the 1980s thanks in part to stepped-up EPA regulations that banned specific uses of asbestos in 1973, 1975 and 1978.
In 1989, the EPA attempted to ban asbestos completely under section six of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The ban was overturned in 1991 after a judge ruled that the EPA had not adequately considered other regulatory actions outside a ban.
Hundreds of nonprofit groups like the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) fought long and hard to amend the TSCA to make it easier for the EPA to ban asbestos and other toxic chemicals. Finally, in 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law, requiring the EPA to conduct safety reviews of new and currently marketed chemicals and enabling it to regulate chemicals based on the risks they posed to consumers’ health and the environment. A ban of asbestos was finally on the horizon.
But the significant new use rule for asbestos proposed by the EPA under the Trump administration could change that possibility. This shouldn’t be a surprise. President Donald Trump has already shown his support for keeping asbestos. In 2012, for example, he tweeted that had asbestos not been removed from the World Trade Centers, the towers would never have fallen after the 9/11 attacks.
EPA spokespeople defending the proposed new rule claim it will help the agency better regulate the use of asbestos. Critics say that the new rule would create new and expanded uses for the toxic mineral, and put workers and their loved ones at risk.
Asbestos exposure currently kills an estimated 12,000 to 39,275 Americans each year. How many more will die as a result of the new use rule?