The Science Denial is Crystal Clear: The EPA Ignores Scientists on Asbestos

May 8, 2019 | 4:22 pm
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

We ignore scientists at our peril. Why doesn’t the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) get this?

The New York Times (subscription required) just reported that EPA officials actively ignored the advice of its own toxicologists last year on asbestos (yes asbestos of all things!) by issuing a rule (subscription required) that placed some restrictions on asbestos but did not fully ban it. More than a dozen EPA scientists and lawyers wrote to officials urging them to ban asbestos outright.

This is not the first time that EPA under the Trump administration has been criticized in the way it deals with asbestos. By not banning it, the EPA leaves open the door for the continued import of asbestos and provides a deal that allows industry a regulated but available pathway to use asbestos products in the US.

We have to listen to federal scientists

EPA scientists were disturbed by both the agency’s review process and with the rule itself. Reading through the two internal memos, it is exceedingly obvious that the EPA scientists were providing a thorough and scientifically valid evaluation of the rule and why it needed to better reflect the current science.

Specifically, the EPA experts criticized the agency’s use of a scientific methodology that was more than 30 years old. The EPA rule only looked at six asbestos fiber types as harmful to health, but the agency has known there are more than six deadly fiber types since the 1990s. This is a severe breach of methodology and runs counter to the EPA’s mission statement which states that agency will use the “best available scientific information” in environmental policy decisions. Thirty-year-old science just won’t cut it when lives are literally on the line.

Additionally, the scientists criticized the fact that only two health problems were considered during the evaluation: lung cancer and mesothelioma. This does not reflect all the ways that asbestos can harm a person. The scientists listed many more health maladies (“asbestosis and other respiratory ailments, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, larynx and pharynx”) which should be considered in the regulation process for asbestos. When this type of health data is thrown out the window, then we cannot see the full effects of asbestos exposure, and therefore cannot enact policy decisions that is based on all the evidence.

Why haven’t we banned asbestos yet?

Asbestos was once considered a miracle mineral because of its heat resistance and strength and was widely used in homes built in the 1950s to the 1970s and in thousands of products. When the science began to show just how deadly asbestos exposure can be, some of the industries that have used asbestos in their products decided that risks to their profit margins were more important than the risks to public health. The manufacturer Georgia-Pacific, a conglomerate now owned by Koch Industries and previously the maker of an asbestos-containing construction material, began a campaign to flood scientific journals with counterfeit science, articles that attempted to cast doubt on the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Faking science to benefit industry profits is unfortunately a well-known disinformation playbook tactic that has been used repeatedly for decades.

Even now, the vice president of regulatory and technical affairs of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group well known for its attempts to dismantle science-based regulations on chemical exposures, told the New York Times, “We ought not to be imposing regulation simply on the basis of hazard.” This is absolutely absurd – all public health regulations are enacted for the purpose of reducing hazards to people!

What is particularly tragic is that the US does not need to import asbestos, that we know that business can cope with the change. In 1989, the EPA under the George H.W. Bush administration, attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products and phased out most other uses. While this policy was overturned by the courts in 1991, we know that banning asbestos is more than possible in the US. And the fact that over 60 nations have banned all uses of asbestos, the ability of industry to cope without asbestos is simply undeniable.

Asbestos is really, really bad

Since the 1920s, we’ve known that asbestos exposure is deadly. But here is the worst part – the latest science is showing that asbestos is far, far more deadly than we previously thought. For years we used to say that asbestos is responsible for the deaths of 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year. According to the best available science, this number is now about 40,000 people dying every year. These numbers exceed deaths in America caused by gun violence or vehicle fatalities. Former Assistant Surgeon General Richard Lemen, now the science advisory board co-chair for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said that the “mortality rate of asbestos exposures is indeed of epidemic proportions.”

There is no safe level for asbestos, even the smallest forms of exposure can result in devastating illness decades later. Take the case of Heather von St James, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of mesothelioma because she as a child she would wear her dad’s jacket, a jacket he used when putting up asbestos-containing drywall. St James survived the mesothelioma and is now an advocate for banning asbestos, but her story is not the norm. Mesothelioma is estimated to be fatal in 90 percent of patients over a five year period.

Ban it, just ban it!

Here’s how the scientists ended their well-crafted arguments: “Rather than allow for (even with restrictions) any new uses for asbestos, EPA should seek to ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit — and because there are adequate alternatives to asbestos.”

Congress is taking a look at the issue, specifically the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, but the administration needs to do better on this. The American people deserve to live their lives without the threat of asbestos exposure, we need to ban this dangerous substance right away.