Latest on EPA's Asbestos Evaluation
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is an organization focused on educating people about this rare disease and advocating for an asbestos ban in the United States. The site features up-to-date news stories, medical breakthroughs, and stories of hope for those battling the disease and their loved ones. Any opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not reflect the views of Lion Technology Inc.
For more information, visit www.mesothelioma.com.
It’s been 28 years since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last issued a final ruling attempting to phase out the use of asbestos in the United States. While the last effort to ban the carcinogenic mineral was overturned before its implementation was complete, the agency’s latest effort has environmental groups wondering if the second time’s the charm.
Federal regulations regarding asbestos use have remained largely the same since 1990, when the first stages of the EPA’s initial ban of the mineral were instituted. This portion, upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, banned any new uses of asbestos and imported asbestos products. It also prohibited the mineral’s use in other types of products like clothing, roofing, and flooring felt. Under current regulations, newly manufactured items are highly limited in the amount of asbestos they may contain and aren’t allowed to exceed one percent.
Where Are We Now?
Until last year, the EPA has been held largely in check and hasn’t made any moves to reissue the ruling under different circumstances. In June of 2016, legislation was passed in Congress to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), giving the EPA more power to regulate chemicals as the need arises. It also forced the Agency to perform ongoing evaluations of chemicals, starting with ten that were announced late last year. Last December, the EPA named asbestos as one of the first ten chemicals up for evaluation and has since begun the work of determining its risk to human health.
Although bans, regulations, and other rules have had a great impact on the amount of asbestos used in the US, the changing desires of the market have also played a role in the mineral’s diminished use. As safer alternatives enter the market in the form of polyurethane foams, flour fillers, and cellulose fibers made up of shredded newsprint, the reliance on asbestos declines. In addition, these alternatives are largely cost-effective and provide similar results without the fear of contamination or exposure to dangerous fibers.
Asbestos in the WorkplaceIt’s no secret that asbestos has a long history in the construction and manufacturing industries. For years, it was included in thousands of products and materials used in home construction, shipbuilding, and automotive applications. As the health concerns connected to exposure were better understood, the threats to public health became too much to contend with.
Asbestos has long been linked to several diseases, including asbestosis, a chronic condition, and mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of organs, most commonly in the lungs, although the abdomen and heart may also be impacted in rare circumstances.
In 1976, with the passage of TSCA, asbestos became heavily regulated and its use began to decline. In 2016, only 340 metric tons of raw asbestos were imported into the United States and all of it was used by the chlor-alkali industry in membranes needed during the production of chlorine and caustic soda.
For those working in other industries where contact with raw asbestos is rare, the threat often lies in legacy uses of the mineral within other products. These asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are largely considered safe when left in good condition, but if they become damaged during demolition, renovation, general maintenance, or a natural disaster, ACMs may release fibers into the air.
Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA state that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, though Federal levels cited by OSHA are capped at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average. Additional regulations provide for three distinct types of standards related to shipbuilding, construction, and general industry, though there are overarching rules that must be followed in every situation.
OSHA and EPA Rules for Asbestos Exposure
These rules provide employees with several safeguards to prevent asbestos exposure, including what respirators to wear when handling and disposing of ACMs and what personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed in those work zones.
Besides OSHA, the EPA also has requirements related to the removal of asbestos from a work site. According to the Agency, asbestos-containing materials must be wetted first to prevent fibers from being released into the air. Those materials are then placed into an airtight container for disposal in a landfill. Everything containing asbestos must also be properly labeled to prevent accidental exposure by others who may be handling the container later on, including those at the landfill where the ACMs will finally be disposed of.
What Would Change if Asbestos is Phased Out?For most of us, if asbestos use were to finally be phased out by the EPA, not much would change. While the chlor-alkali industry would have to eventually make the switch from asbestos to different semi-permeable membranes, some plants have already voluntarily moved away from the mineral in favor of other, more effective, options. That isn’t to say the industry will go down without a fight.
During the EPA’s recent comment period, which has since closed, several groups spoke out about the proposed ban, suggesting asbestos was needed during the production process. The industry contends that the cost to use other types of membranes is cost-prohibitive and that the asbestos used during the process is handled safely.
The real impact might not be seen for several years, as new applications of asbestos would cease and over time more home and building owners will have ACMs removed from older buildings. While most countries have not had the luxury of a decades-long ban in place, several early adopting nations are beginning to see favorable results related to phase-outs that took place in the early 1980s. According to a 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, researchers found that the country is seeing a decline in the number of pleural mesothelioma cases since banning asbestos use in 1982.
Meanwhile, in the United States, where asbestos is still available in various products used in construction and other applications, the rates of diagnosis have remained steady and are expected to rise slightly through the end of the decade.
Nearly 60 countries around the world have already issued some sort of ban on asbestos use, including every country in the European Union and many of the countries we consider highly industrialized. Canada, a former miner and producer of the mineral, is set to join the growing group of countries in 2018, as it tries to make good on a promise it issued in late 2016.
The role of asbestos has largely diminished since reaching a height of more than 800,000 tons in 1973. A substantial decrease in use, combined with decades of knowledge contributing to the threat asbestos poses to public health, has set the table for the US to possibly take action against the known carcinogen.
Until then, the need for proper regulation and better awareness and education are paramount to general workplace safety.
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