The Environmental Protection Agency is allowing the reintroduction of asbestos into the manufacturing of new products, according to the Architect's Newspaper, which means the known human carcinogen could find its way back into construction materials.
On June 1, the EPA authorized a “SNUR” (Significant New Use Rule) which allows new products containing asbestos to be created on a case-by-case basis.
According to environmental advocates, this new rule gives chemical companies the upper hand in creating new uses for harmful products in the United States. In May, the EPA released a report detailing its new framework for evaluating the risk of its top prioritized substances. The report states that the agency will no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments.
This news comes after the EPA reviewed its first batch of 10 chemicals under the 2016 amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which required the agency to continually reevaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals to see whether they should face new restrictions or be removed from the market. The SNUR greenlights companies to use toxic chemicals like asbestos without consideration about how they will endanger people who are indirectly in contact with them.
Asbestos was used liberally until it was banned by most countries in 1970 — though the United States is one of few developed nations that opted to regulated the material rather than ban it outright.
About 40,000 people in the U.S. die each year from diseases related to asbestos, most often by way of lung cancer and mesothelioma. The EPA’s changes could mean that number will rise.
Healthy Building Network (HBN), an environmental advocacy group, recently told Fast Company that the fibrous material poses a major health risk for everyone exposed to it, including those who mine it, those who handle it in industrial facilities, as well as people near or inside renovation and construction projects where it’s being used. HBN’s Board President Bill Walsh said that the chlor-alkali industry is the only industry in the country that still uses asbestos, reportedly importing about 480 tons of the carcinogen each year from Russia and Brazil.
Walsh pointed out that chlorine-based plastics are commonly found in building-product materials and that “virtually all” asbestos in the U.S. is used in the industrial process to make chlorine. This includes PVC and vinyl plastics, which is largely found in the creation of pipes, tiles, flooring, adhesives, paints, and roofing products.
Russia’s Uralasbest is the world’s largest supplier of asbestos, operating an open mine which the Architect’s Newspaper notes is roughly half the size of Manhattan.
The company has support from the government and President Vladimir Putin, even though their economic success exposes the local residents to major health risks. Once referred to as “the dying city,” Asbet’s residents have reported the carcinogenic dust is often found as a thick film over garden vegetables, laundry lines, and even on the floors of their homes.
In June, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) flagged a controversial post on Uralasbest’s Facebook page showing photos of company pallets stamped with a seal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s face.
Trump has long been vocal about his skepticism on the harmful effects of asbestos, citing in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob.” In 2012, he tweetedthat the World Trade Center might not have burned had the fire-retardant material not been removed from the towers. It’s estimated that 400 tons of asbestos fiber went into the structures before the developers stopped it from being used further in 1971.