What Do The EPA's Changes To Asbestos Regulations Actually Mean?

Old asbestos roof. Tomas Ragina/Shutterstock

You may have heard the news that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now allowing new asbestos products to enter the market. That’s right, asbestos – a family of minerals that has been linked to several nasty diseases, including asbestosis and various types of cancer.

However, as Snopes has clarified, the policy change won't affect any of the current bans on asbestos, including on flooring felt, rollboard, and commercial paper. What's more, any proposed new uses of asbestos would have to undergo various EPA assessments before being permitted.

It is also worth noting at this point that asbestos is not currently banned across the board. While its use has been restricted, it is still used in roof coatings, cement pipes, and even clothing among other things. 

So, what do the new changes mean exactly?

First thing's first, the use of asbestos is limited by the Toxic Substances Control Act. Asbestos, which refers to a group of heat-resistant and naturally occurring silicate materials once frequently used in construction, earned its place as a toxic substance because of the various studies linking it to cancer

The EPA announced a “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR) on asbestos back in June, which means that any producer of asbestos wishing to sell and distribute the product for a "significant new use" will have to notify the EPA at least 90 days before they begin manufacturing or processing it for that purpose. Comments on the document were due within 60 days of its publication in the Federal Register – so, August 10, 2018 (or this Friday).

As the department explained in a statement, "This review process would provide EPA with the opportunity to evaluate the intended use of asbestos and, when necessary, take action to prohibit or limit the use."

That is not to say the move hasn't been met with criticism. Some opponents are saying that while it is not allowing new uses without the approval of the department, it is still allowing new uses of asbestos. They argue that any new use of asbestos should be automatically prohibited, as did the previous administration. In this sense, it is still a loosening of chemical restrictions

"Even under current restrictions, asbestos sneaks into our lives," a spokesperson from The Mesothelioma Center, an advocacy center for patients with mesothelioma. 

"The EPA's significant new use rule will allow companies to manufacture, import and process new asbestos-containing products after it evaluates their potential health dangers. It will focus on possible harm from direct contact with asbestos at the workplace or elsewhere, but will not consider legacy uses. Any policy that lessens already weak restrictions on asbestos in the U.S. can open the door for asbestos finding its way into more consumer products."

The processes for approving new uses has also been criticized. Not only will certain asbestos-like fibers not be included, the EPA has said that it will not use data from current or previous uses of asbestos. This is important because it is where a lot of our information about its health risk comes from. As with the HONEST Act, this will likely mean piles of important and relevant data concerning public health will be dismissed and, as the New York Times points out, the final risk assessment will be flawed with the EPA deciding there is a lower risk level than there is in reality.

This may be good news for chemical companies, but it's less good news for the public's health. 

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