Despite new regulations, US faces major asbestos problem
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently took a big step toward curbing asbestos use, but experts say that even with the new regulations exposure to the substance is expected to remain a problem for years to come.
It has been estimated the substance lingers in more than 700,000 public and commercial buildings in the U.S., leaving millions of people potentially vulnerable, particularly maintenance workers, construction crews and firefighters.
“It’s still a very real problem,” said Arthur Frank, an environmental and occupational health professor at Drexel University who studies asbestos exposure.
Asbestos refers to a group of six types of minerals that are made up of very small fibers. It has historically been used in cement and roofing, though its use has dwindled since the 1970s after its health hazards became more widely known.
Exposure to the toxic material can cause diseases such as asbestosis, which is lung scarring from breathing in large amounts of the fibers. It also increases the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the membrane that covers the lungs and chest cavity, as well as membranes surrounding other organs.
Asbestos exposure has been estimated to kill 40,000 Americans every year.
Earlier this month the EPA proposed a ban on six ongoing uses of a type of asbestos called chrysotile asbestos, prohibiting the substance’s use in asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, oilfield brake blocks, automotive brakes and linings as well as other vehicle friction products and gaskets.
Despite the ban on these uses, asbestos still lingers in many structures, including homes and schools.
EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said in an email that about 20 percent of public or commercial buildings, or 733,000 structures, contain the potentially dangerous type of asbestos that can be crumbled, citing a 1984 national study.
Many advocates said they are pleased the EPA is taking on the issue but have voiced concern that the administration has not gone far enough to address the toxic materials previously used over the decades, known as “legacy” asbestos.
“We have an EPA that is doing something, but I wish they would take on this issue of legacy asbestos as well and at least educate people that there is lots of it out there and that if you think you’re going to be exposed to it, you need to protect yourself,” said Frank, who has given expert testimony in a number of asbestos cases.
Carroll said the EPA was limited by the scope of the agency’s latest risk assessment, which was finished in 2020 under the Trump administration. That assessment looked at new uses of chrysotile asbestos and did not consider legacy uses of asbestos or risks from other kinds of asbestos.
The agency is expected to look at legacy uses in the future, but it could be years before potential risks are assessed, let alone addressed.
In 2019, a judge ruled that the agency was wrong to start off by only considering new uses and ordered it to take older uses of the material into account. The court set a deadline for this “phase 2” assessment to be finished by Dec. 1, 2024.
“Concerns that emerged from phase two would have to be addressed in a part-two rulemaking, and that would not start until sometime after … 2024,” said lawyer Bob Sussman, a former EPA official in the Clinton and Obama administrations who represented the groups that have pushed for the legacy assessment.
Frank said lingering asbestos has presented a problem for maintenance and construction workers, as well as people who served in the Navy. He also mentioned “secondhand” exposure among people married to these types of workers.
A 2013 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also found an “excess” of mesothelioma among firefighters, saying this was likely due to asbestos exposure during their jobs.
Further, schools are suspected of being another potential hiding spot for asbestos, with the EPA estimating that 137,621 schools have asbestos-containing materials.
One Philadelphia Inquirer investigation from 2018 found asbestos at several schools in the city at levels that experts called alarming.
“Our biggest exposure is from legacy asbestos, something the EPA has continued to ignore,” read a statement from Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is pushing for more federal action.
The group, which says it represents more than 300,000 firefighters and paramedics, voiced support for the Biden administration’s moves to reduce asbestos exposure but said more must be done.
“While admirable and well-intentioned, the [EPA’s] plan to ban the importation and use of Chrysotile Asbestos simply does not go far enough in protecting fire fighters from asbestos exposures,” Kelly said.
“I urge the EPA to join with all public safety stakeholders in taking the necessary next steps to rid our communities of this toxic substance,” he added.
Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the EPA should go further and ban all uses of the material and all six asbestos fibers.
“They did not ban all six asbestos fibers, they only banned one fiber and six uses,” Reinstein, whose husband, Alan, died of mesothelioma, said in an email.
Similar sentiments have been expressed on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has introduced a bill to ban new asbestos uses, said in a statement that he’s “glad to see the EPA making moves to ban asbestos, but the EPA process is very slow and they’re only addressing 1 of 6 recognized asbestos fibers.”
“Meanwhile, Congress should immediately ban the importation and utilization of asbestos fibers in the manufacture of all products,” Merkley said.
In general, Sussman, the former EPA official, described the EPA’s latest rule as a positive step but also said it doesn’t solve the problem.
“The bottom line is there’s just a big chunk of the problem which is not addressed by the rule,” he said.
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