It shouldn’t come as a surprise that asbestos isn’t good for you. The mineral is a known carcinogen and has been tied to thousands of deaths from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases. On average, close to 3,000 people each year in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma. And for those unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the incredibly rare disease, the results are often not good. Patients are usually given a grim prognosis averaging somewhere between 12 and 21 months.
Asbestos-related diseases are rarely quick to present themselves, often taking decades before symptoms finally show. When you breathe in or accidentally ingest the invisible fibers, they enter the lungs and may lodge themselves deep into the lung lining, known as the mesothelium. The area becomes irritated and over the years tumors begin to form. Mesothelioma is often difficult to diagnose, which means the resulting cancer is caught later and treatment options are more limited.
Breaking down barriers
Armed with that kind of information, one would assume it’d be a slam dunk to phase out asbestos use in the United States. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Last year, roughly 340 tons of raw asbestos were imported into the US, primarily for use in the chlor-alkali industry. Some types of asbestos-containing materials can also be imported. The Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos use nearly three decades ago, but many of the rules established by the department were overturned in a resulting court decision two years later. Today there’s hope things could change in the coming years, including renewed interest from the EPA.
In 2016, Congress approved the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, amending the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and giving the EPA more power to regulate dangerous chemicals as they are introduced in an effort to more effectively remove those posing an unnecessary risk to public health. Chemicals deemed to pose an unreasonable risk during the evaluation process will be eliminated based on safety standards, as opposed to a risk-benefit balancing standard used under the previous TSCA requirements. What this means is that under the old TSCA, an unreasonable risk would require a cost-benefit analysis and any restrictions would have to be the least burdensome to addressing the risk. Under the Lautenberg Act, the “least burdensome” requirement is removed, though the EPA still needs to take costs of other regulatory actions and feasible alternatives into consideration.
The amendment also requires the agency to perform ongoing evaluations of chemicals to determine their risk to public health. In December, asbestos was included on a list of ten priority chemicals slated for evaluation and a scoping document for the mineral was issued in June. Problem formulation documents for each of the first ten chemicals are expected in December.
Drowning in red tape
Despite what the Lautenberg Act is doing to unshackle the EPA and allow it to properly regulate chemicals as it sees fit, the White House and Congress have taken actions that seem counterintuitive. For example, in January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order known as the “2-for-1 Order” forcing agencies to remove two existing rules for every new one they create. The risk here is that agencies like the EPA will have to pick which rules to enforce, creating a new series of public health concerns. When it comes to new hazards, the agency may be slower to react due to a new budget variable thrown into the mix. While it could help the agency identify rules that overlap others, it does create the risk of money taking precedence over public health.
In addition, the Senate’s recently introduced Regulatory Accountability Act, known in some circles as the ”License to Kill” Bill, poses a similar set of issues. If passed, the RAA could potentially resurrect much of the red tape that was removed by the Lautenberg Act. Once again, it would become difficult to regulate or ban chemicals in the future, despite dangers they may propose. For example, the EPA would have to prove that a full asbestos ban is the best option available to the agency compared to any other more cost-effective option. It also allows for anyone to challenge these decisions, which could delay a potential ruling for years or even halt the process entirely.
The EPA is also constrained by the people who have been appointed to several high level positions within the agency itself. Administrator Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, challenging rules he believes overstepped the agency’s boundaries. Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, previously with the American Chemistry Council, lobbied for years against the very rules she has sworn to protect today. In 2009, Beck was criticized in a House report for attempting to undermine and create uncertainty regarding the EPA’s chemical evaluations while serving with the Office of Budget and Management for the Bush administration. The latest person nominated for an EPA position is Mike Dourson, who has, at times, proposed much less protective standards for chemicals than those in use by the federal government.
Where we stand now
This Mesothelioma Awareness Day, we find ourselves one step closer to seeing asbestos banned in the US. Today, while we honor those who’ve lost their struggle against this disease, we also show support for those still fighting mesothelioma and refusing to give in.
The EPA has, once again, taken the first steps toward a potential ban, but until that day comes the need for more awareness is a never-ending battle. Mesothelioma is a misunderstood disease and asbestos isn’t something people might consider at work or at home, which is why educating others is so important. Mesothelioma is largely avoidable, but the need to remain vigilant to prevent exposure is paramount.
Asbestos exposure isn’t something that will come to a screeching halt overnight. Hundreds of thousands of homes, buildings, and schools still harbor the mineral and that is likely to be the case for years to come. But stopping the flow of raw and imported asbestos into the US is a great first step to combating the issue at large.