As Asbestos Toll Mounts, Trump’s EPA Ignores It

June 22, 2018 | 2:03 pm
Photo: NAVFAC/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Derrick Z. Jackson

Two years ago, President Obama signed a successful bipartisan effort to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). It was called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, named for the late New Jersey senator who had long championed it. The new act was intended to give the federal government more power to regulate dangerous chemicals that the chemical industry had previously been able to shield under the cloak of confidential business information and a misplaced priority on minimizing costs to businesses over public health. Obama said those hurdles made it “virtually impossible” for the Environmental Protection Agency “to actually see if those chemicals were harming anybody.”

Today, it seems that the mission of the EPA under the Trump administration is to make it impossible to determine the harmful effects of any chemicals in the United States. Hundreds of pages of new documents recently released by the EPA detail the administration’s plans to scale back safety evaluations for the top 10 chemicals identified in 2016 by the Obama EPA as known or suspected carcinogens or suspected threats to fetal and reproductive development.

These are chemicals that surround us in our daily lives, used in refrigeration, plastics, roofing materials, pesticides, paint strippers, deodorants, cosmetics, anti-freeze, solvents, electronics, arts and crafts materials, home cleaning products, dry cleaning, adhesives, sealants and degreasers. The EPA, whose mission to protect the public has been hijacked by chemical industry sycophants President Trump and agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, is lowering the bar for approving toxic chemicals to the point of essentially having no standards.

Relaxing the government’s scrutiny on such toxics essentially guts the Lautenberg Act.

Far-reaching implications

The EPA regulates about 80,000 different chemicals, but the Washington Post has reported that over the last four decades, the EPA required testing for only 200. The Obama administration said only five chemicals had been banned out of the 62,000 chemicals in existence in 1976. The bureaucratic system “was so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos—a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year,” Obama said when signing the Lautenberg Act. “I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.”

With this latest move, Americans have reason to be shocked again, particularly since asbestos is one of the 10 chemicals that was supposed to be studied. It is so ubiquitous in older building insulation and fireproofing that a 2015 report commissioned by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California found that 7 out of 10 reporting local school agencies had asbestos in buildings.

But Pruitt and Nancy Beck, his deputy for chemical safety and a former executive at the American Chemistry Council, have no intention of studying children’s exposure in such settings. As part of the agency’s unprecedented sweeping away of science, the EPA says, “legacy uses, associated disposals, and legacy disposals will be excluded,” from risk evaluations. For good measure, the Pruitt EPA said the exclusions include “asbestos-containing materials that remain in older buildings.”

Translated, that means the federal government will no longer study exposure to asbestos from, insulation, fireproofing and flooring already in people’s homes, cars, workplaces—and schools. Nor will they consider disposal sites.  Not only is this an insult to children, the exclusions represent a conscious denial of how the risk of asbestos exposures still plague low income Americans who often live in poorly maintained apartments and are more likely to live near toxic waste disposal areas to make matters worse.

The case of asbestos

Like many chemicals, asbestos originally was touted as a miracle mineral for its heat resistance and strength. In the middle of the last century, the asbestos industry knew its product was hazardous, but engaged in decades of cover-ups. Internal science on their hazards was censored and companies refused to give risk warnings to their own workers or to the installers at the companies that bought their products.

In the late 1950s, Owens-Illinois Glass in Toledo, famously continued to call one of its asbestos insulation products “non-toxic” despite an industry-funded study that concluded that it caused fatal asbestosis. The lead researcher for that study, Arthur Vorwald, concluded, “It is better to discover it now in animals rather than later in industrial workers.”

When it was discovered en masse in Americans, the industry faced a barrage of  lawsuits from victims, triggering asbestos trust payouts of $17.5 billion, covering 3.3 million claims between 1988 and 2010. More than 100 asbestos-related companies plunged into bankruptcy, including the nation’s biggest manufacturer.

In a 1994 commentary in the Harvard Business Review, Bill Sells, a former executive at America’s largest asbestos manufacturer, Johns-Manville, wrote that, for more than 30 years, he had witnessed, “one of the most colossal corporate blunders of the twentieth century . . .In my opinion, the blunder that cost thousands of lives and destroyed an industry was a management blunder, and the blunder was denial.”

According to Sells, the link between asbestos and disease had been known since the early 1900s, and the first indications of a connection between asbestos and lung cancer appeared in the 1930s. But, as he put it: “Manville managers at every level were unwilling or unable to believe in the long-term consequences of these known hazards. They denied, or at least failed to acknowledge, the depth and persistence of management accountability.”

The asbestos industry’s denial is part of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ corporate Disinformation Playbook—an online review of classic strategies companies use to undermine science. The playbook features a case involving Georgia-Pacific, the company better known for paper towels, toilet tissue and homebuilding products. It was hit with a blizzard of lawsuits in the 2000s for diseases that developed from exposure to a joint compound the company manufactured with asbestos from 1965 to 1977.

In a cynical effort to discredit claimants, the company paid $6 million to 18 scientists to produce scientific “findings” of asbestos safety and planted false articles in the legitimate scientific literature, while hiding the “data” from plaintiffs as privileged corporate information. A New York state appellate court ordered the company turn over its documents in 2013. After paying out $2.8 billion in settlements since 2000, with 64,000 claims to go, Georgia-Pacific, now owned by Koch Industries, last year filed for bankruptcy for its joint compound subsidiary–40 years after it stopped using asbestos.

A deadly legacy continues

Asbestos is so toxic it has now been banned in 55 countries, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Despite that, the mineral is very much with us today in the United States. In the 1970s, the EPA banned many uses, such as the sprayed and crumbly forms of the mineral in fireproofing, and pipe, boiler and hot water tank insulation. In 1989, as health concerns grew, the EPA (under the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush), began a phase-out of most other uses. But the asbestos lobby successfully avoided the phase-out when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that the EPA did not adequately compare the toxicity of products that might replace asbestos.

With a straight face, the president of the Asbestos Information Association/North America, Robert Pigg, victoriously said, “We have known for many years that asbestos can be safely and securely bound in today’s products, as long as carefully controlled manufacturing and installation processes are employed. We are glad to see the court agrees that the evidence supports this view.”

But because of the Fifth Circuit ruling, asbestos continues to be used to this day in the United States in a wide array of commercial and consumer products, including automotive brake components, cement pipe, sheets and shingles, roofing, vinyl floor tile and even some clothing. That continued exposure is clearly coming at a human cost, with new research indicating a much higher toll than previously thought.

For several years, it was thought that exposure to it killed between 12,000 to 15,000 Americans a year, according to the EWG. The most prominent categories of fatalities are mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. But new research published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health dramatically increased the estimated death toll globally and in the United States.

A team of scientists from Singapore, Japan, Guam and Australia found that asbestos actually kills about 255,000 people around the world, instead of the up to 112,000 previously estimated by the World Health Organization. In the US, the new estimate of annual asbestos-related deaths jumped to 39,275. The new estimates were so alarming that lead researcher Jukka Takala, who is also president of the International Commission on Occupational Health, said, “It’s time for the United States to take action and recognize the need for a ban. There is no safe level of exposure.”

In a minor recognition of the hazards of asbestos, Pruitt did recently announce that the EPA proposes to require manufacturers to apply to the agency for manufacturing, importing or processing asbestos for “a significant new use.” But with a long track record of asbestos deaths and widespread bans in nations around the world, potential new uses pale next to the need to get legacy asbestos out of our homes, workplaces, and machinery.

Former Assistant Surgeon General Richard Lemen, who is science advisory board co-chair for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the new estimate of 39,275 annual US deaths from asbestos-related diseases (which exceeds either gun deaths or vehicle fatalities) “confirms that the mortality rate of asbestos exposures is indeed of epidemic proportions.”

The deadly epidemic is sure to continue, with the EPA’s decision to give asbestos a free pass. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported on a “third wave” of asbestos disease. The first wave, the center said, was miners, millers and manufacturing workers. The second wave was insulators, ship builders and other installers.

The new wave, according to the Asbestos Disease Society of Australia, is spreading far beyond specialized crafts to affect “all of society,” through demolition, cable installation, home remodeling, car repairs and attending schools where officials do not realize that crumbling old asbestos in older buildings is releasing fibers into the air. The society says, “This elevated risk will remain until all asbestos-containing materials have been removed from the built environment.”

With such elevated risks still being discovered, with findings that make asbestos an even more dangerous chemical land mine waiting to explode into the lungs of Americans who live and work in older buildings, this is no time for the EPA to lower its guard. When Frank Lautenberg was alive, he said, “America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken. Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies. EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals, and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe.”

Asbestos is but one example of how the Trump administration is trying to break the system, by destroying the Lautenberg Act. It would rather assure the chemical industry that its products are safe from scrutiny, rather than certify they are safe for humans. Unless the administration is stopped, it is on a path to commit—to borrow from Bill Sells—one of the most colossal public health blunders of the 21st century.