The Environmental Protection Agency will not consider the health risks and impacts of asbestos already in the environment when evaluating the dangers associated with the chemical compound, Scott Pruitt, the agency's head, quietly announced last week. That means asbestos used in tiles, piping and adhesives throughout homes and businesses in the United States will remain largely unchecked and unaccounted for. Nearly 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases, but President Donald Trump has called the substance "100 percent safe, once applied."
In his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, Trump argued that the association of the chemical with health risks was part of a mob-created conspiracy. "I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented," he wrote.
The Trump EPA's decision came in response to new amendments made to the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. The additions to the bill mandate that the EPA perform safety reviews of certain chemicals, require testing and public notice of safety info for said chemicals and allow the EPA to ban certain uses of asbestos (previously, the EPA did not have the authority to do so).
The EPA announced last Friday that it would evaluate and require approval for new uses of asbestos but would not evaluate the health risks of asbestos already in the environment. "The end result will be a seriously inadequate risk evaluation that fails to address major contributors to the heavy and growing toll of asbestos mortality and disease in the United States," said Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization in a statement.
Reinstein, whose husband developed Mesothelioma and passed away in 2006, told Newsweek that she met with Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, on two occasions along with representatives from the AFL-CIO and the International Association of Fire Fighters. The group explained the hazards of legacy asbestos and presented over 100 studies confirming that low-dose asbestos exposure caused disease, but were shut down by Beck, she said. Beck was previously a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, a lobbyist group that represents Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto and ExxonMobil Chemical.
In August of 2016, the American ChemistryCouncil sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to carefully consider its decision regarding asbestos evaluation as the chemical is essential to the chlor-alkali industry, which creates chlorine and sodium hydroxide for industrial use. They asked the EPA to "take this into consideration as it determines whether to select asbestos among the initial 10 chemicals for risk evaluation" under the changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Chemical lobbyist agencies including American Chemical Council held at least four meetings with the EPA last year regarding asbestos policy.
"If you don't evaluate the dangerous legacy of asbestos you don't know how much contamination still exists in the United States," Reinstein told Newsweek. "We know it's in our homes, schools, workplace and environment but the average American can't identify and evaluate the risk. We have taken risk evaluation off the table."
The bipartisan updates made to the Toxic Substances Control Act by Congress were intended to give the EPA the ability to ban the use of these substances, some senators say. The environmental agency attempted to ban the use in 1989, but a federal court ruled that it lacked the authority to do so.
"In a bipartisan compromise, Congress moved to patch up the holes in our chemical review system when it updated the Toxic Substances Control Act. But Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are presiding over an attack on not just the spirit, but also the actual content of the reform law," said Senator Edward J. Markey, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement. "Thousands of people die from asbestos-related cancers every year. Asbestos and other toxic substances will continue to contaminate our environment because Trump administration policies are contaminating the EPA."
There's a lack of basic information in the United States about the extent to which public and private structures are contaminated by the chemical. A recent report found that the government has no record of how many schools contain asbestos materials.
"EPA's refusal to address longstanding concerns around the use and disposal of asbestos is further proof that Administrator Pruitt will bend over backwards to help industry, but won't lift a finger to protect public health," said Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The EPA did say that it would take unprecedented action on asbestos by requiring new manufacturers and importers of asbestos to receive EPA approval before importing or processing the chemical. Reinstein, however, said that this is not a ban and that the largest users of asbestos will continue to use it.
Fifty-five countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Israel and Japan have completely banned asbestos use. The White House referred Newsweek to the EPA and the EPA did not respond to a request for comment.