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E.P.A. to Propose Restrictions on Asbestos

todayApril 5, 2022 13

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will propose on Tuesday to ban one form of asbestos, the first time the federal government has moved to significantly restrict the toxic industrial material since 1989.

Under the proposed regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency would prohibit the use, manufacture and import of chrysotile asbestos, a type of asbestos that has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Chrysotile is the only raw form of asbestos known to be currently imported, processed or distributed for use in the United States. Known as “white asbestos,” it is used in roofing materials, textiles and cement as well as gaskets, clutches, brake pads and other automotive parts.

It would still be legal to import other types of asbestos but companies are required to notify the E.P.A. before importing any product known to contain asbestos fibers, and the agency has the authority to deny those imports.

Health advocates who have been battling for decades to prohibit all forms of asbestos called the E.P.A.’s decision insufficient. They note that asbestos is linked to an estimated 40,000 deaths annually in the United States. More than 60 countries and territories have banned asbestos.

The proposed rule marks a sharp contrast with the Trump administration, which fought legislation that would ban asbestos and imposed a policy that E.P.A.’s own scientists said left loopholes for industries to continue its use. Former President Donald J. Trump inaccurately declared asbestos “100 percent safe” in his 1997 book, “The Art of the Comeback,” and claimed the movement to remove asbestos “was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”

Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A., said Tuesday said the proposed rule will “finally put an end” to a dangerous use of asbestos.

“This historic proposed ban would protect the American people from exposure to chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen,” Mr. Regan said in a statement, adding that the agency will take other “bold, long-overdue actions” to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to resist heat, fire and electricity. It was first used in construction in the 1930s and became ubiquitous as an insulator in schools, hospitals, homes and offices as well as consumer products.

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to link it to health problems. Inhaling asbestos fibers, even in small amounts, can cause irreversible scarring of the lungs as well as a cancer called malignant mesothelioma.

The E.P.A. under President George H.W. Bush tried to ban asbestos use in 1989 but that effort was overturned by the federal courts in 1991. However, the ruling did retain prohibitions against new uses of asbestos. Because of that — and the potential legal liability — use of asbestos declined in the United States.

Asbestos production in the United States stopped in 2002 but it is still imported to produce chemicals used in manufacturing items like household bleach, bulletproof vests and electrical insulation as well as automotive products.

Brazil was once the source of about 95 percent of all asbestos used in America, according to the E.P.A., but in 2017 it banned its manufacture and sale. Since then, Russia has stepped in as a supplier. During the Trump administration the Russian firm Uralasbest, one of the largest producers and sellers of asbestos, posted an image of its packaging on Facebook that featured President Trump’s face along with the words: “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

An E.P.A. official said sanctions that have been imposed by the Biden administration against Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February played no part in the E.P.A. decision to ban asbestos imports.

In recent months, companies that use imported asbestos including Occidental Chemical Corporation and the Olin Corporation, as well as trade groups like the Chlorine Institute and the American Chemistry Council, have met with the White House to discuss potential E.P.A. action.

Neither company responded to a request for comment. Frank Reiner, the president of the Chlorine Institute, which represents chlorine producers and distributors, said his member companies need to review the proposed rule before commenting.

The industry considers the use of chrysotile asbestos to be safe, he said. “In chlorine production there have been measures in place for many, many years,” Mr. Reiner said. “It is our believe that we have been using it safely and taking appropriate measures.”

About 300 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos were imported to the U.S. in 2020, according to a United States Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries report. It is almost exclusively used to make chlorine-based products, the E.P.A. said.

An evaluation conducted in 2020 by the E.P.A. found “unreasonable risks to human health” associated with asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake blocks and other products.

Restrictions on asbestos diaphragms and sheet gaskets for commercial use would take effect two years after the effective date of the final rule. Prohibitions relating to oil field brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets for commercial use would take effect 180 days after the rule goes into effect.

Linda Reinstein, president and founder of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the five other forms of asbestos are just as dangerous and should be banned. She noted that one of the biggest threats is legacy asbestos, stemming from decades of unbridled use of the product in construction, building insulation and the manufacturing of many products.

“Without a ban of all fiber types, asbestos can still be imported in consumer products, kids’ toys and building materials,” she said.

Dr. Raja M. Flores, the chairman for the department of thoracic surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York said he sees about 60 patients a year suffering from mesothelioma or other disease related to asbestos. “You look closely enough, you’ll find the connection,” Dr. Flores said. “The school they taught in for 10 years actually had asbestos, or they were working on brake pads outside their home.”

He also called for a complete asbestos ban but called the E.P.A.’s proposed rule a “step in the right direction.” “Having been on this battlefield for decades, I’m happy they’re finally banning something,” Dr. Flores said.

Michal Freedhoff, the assistant administrator of chemical safety and pollution prevention at E.P.A., said the agency intends to conduct analyses of the other types of asbestos.

Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging the annual National Asbestos Awareness Week. It urges the Office of the Surgeon General to warn and better educate people about the public health issues of asbestos exposure. Legislation that would fully ban asbestos — and which is named for Ms. Reinstein’s husband, who died more than a decade ago from mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure — has never come to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

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