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EPA Bans Asbestos | April 2024

April 2024 | Volume 15, Issue 9

Read the full article from ABCNews.

According to the article, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a comprehensive ban on asbestos, a carcinogen that is still used in some chlorine bleach, brake pads, and other products and that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year.

The final rule marks a major expansion of EPA regulation under a landmark 2016 law that overhauled regulations governing tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in everyday products, from household cleaners to clothing and furniture.

Chrysotile Asbestos

The new rule would ban chrysotile asbestos, the only ongoing use of asbestos in the United States. The substance is found in products such as brake linings and gaskets and is used to manufacture chlorine bleach and sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda.

A Major Step for Public Health

EPA Administrator Michael Regan called the final rule a major step to protect public health.

“With today’s ban, EPA is finally slamming the door on a chemical so dangerous that it has been banned in over 50 countries,'' Regan said. “This historic ban is more than 30 years in the making, and it’s thanks to amendments that Congress made in 2016 to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act,” the main U.S. law governing the use of chemicals.

Asbestos exposure is known to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other cancers, and it is linked to more than 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Ending the ongoing uses of asbestos advances the goals of President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, a whole-of-government initiative to end cancer in the U.S., Regan said.

“The science is clear: Asbestos is a known carcinogen that severely impacts public health. This action is just the beginning as we work to protect all American families, workers, and communities from toxic chemicals,'' Regan said.

The Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act

The 2016 law authorized new rules for tens of thousands of toxic chemicals found in everyday products, including substances such as asbestos and trichloroethylene that for decades have been known to cause cancer yet were largely unregulated under federal law. Known as the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, the law was intended to clear up a hodgepodge of state rules governing chemicals and update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a 1976 law that had remained unchanged for 40 years.

The EPA banned asbestos in 1989, but the rule was largely overturned by a 1991 court decision that weakened the EPA’s authority under the TSCA to address risks to human health from asbestos or other existing chemicals. The 2016 law required the EPA to evaluate chemicals and put in place protections against unreasonable risks.

Asbestos Banned in Many Countries

Asbestos was common in home insulation and other products but is banned in more than 50 countries, and its use in the U.S. has been declining for decades. The only form of asbestos currently imported, processed, or distributed for use in the U.S. is chrysotile asbestos, which is imported primarily from Brazil and Russia. It is used by the chlor-alkali industry, which produces bleach, caustic soda, and other products.

Most consumer products that historically contained chrysotile asbestos have been discontinued.

While chlorine is a commonly used disinfectant in water treatment, there are only 10 chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. that still use asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. The plants are mostly located in Louisiana and Texas.

The use of asbestos diaphragms has been declining and now accounts for about one-third of the chlor-alkali production in the U.S., the EPA said.

The EPA rule will ban imports of asbestos for chlor-alkali use as soon as the rule is published, but a ban on most other uses would take effect in two years.

A ban on the use of asbestos in oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings and other gaskets will take effect in six months. A ban on sheet gaskets that contain asbestos will take effect in two years, except for gaskets used to produce titanium dioxide and for the processing of nuclear material. Those uses would be banned in five years.

The EPA rule allows asbestos-containing sheet gaskets to be used until 2037 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina to ensure that safe disposal of nuclear materials can continue on schedule, the EPA said.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that pushed to ban asbestos, hailed the EPA action.

“For too long, polluters have been allowed to make, use and release toxins like asbestos and PFAS without regard for our health,” Faber said. “Thanks to the leadership of the Biden EPA, those days are finally over.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent federal administrative agency of the U.S. government tasked with protecting human health and the environment.
    In fulfillment of its mission, the EPA works to ensure that:
    (1) Americans have clean air, land, and water.
    (2) National efforts to reduce environmental risks are based on the best available scientific information.
    (3) Federal laws protecting human health and the environment are administered and enforced fairly, effectively, and as Congress intended.
    (4) Environmental stewardship is integral to U.S. policies concerning natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade, and these factors are similarly considered in establishing environmental policy.
    (5) All parts of society--communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments--have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks.
    (6) Contaminated lands and toxic sites are cleaned up by potentially responsible parties and revitalized.
    (7) Chemicals in the marketplace are reviewed for safety.

    To accomplish this mission, the EPA:
    (1) Develops and enforces regulations.
    When Congress writes an environmental law, the EPA implements it by writing regulations. Often, it sets national standards that states and tribes enforce through their own regulations. If they fail to meet the national standards, the EPA can help them. The EPA also enforces its regulations, and helps companies understand the requirements.
    (2) Gives grants.
    Nearly half of the EPA’s budget goes into grants to state environmental programs, non-profits, educational institutions, and others. They use the money for a wide variety of projects, from scientific studies that help us make decisions to community cleanups. Overall, grants help the EPA achieve its overall mission: protect human health and the environment.
    (3) Studies environmental issues.
    At laboratories located throughout the nation, the EPA identifies and tries to solve environmental problems. To learn even more, the EPA shares information with other countries, private sector organizations, academic institutions, and other agencies.
    (4) Sponsors partnerships.
    The EPA does not protect the environment on its own.  The agency works with businesses, non-profit organizations, and state and local governments through dozens of partnerships. A few examples include conserving water and energy, minimizing greenhouse gases, re-using solid waste, and getting a handle on pesticide risks. In return, the EPA shares information and publicly recognizes its partners.
    (5) Teaches people about the environment.
    Protecting the environment is everyone's responsibility and starts with understanding the issues. The basics include reducing how much energy and materials people use, reusing what they can, and recycling the rest.
    (6) Publishes information.
    Through written materials and this website, the EPA informs the public about its activities.
  2. Discuss the Toxic Substances Control Act.
    The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA, 15 U.S.C. Section 2601 et. seq.) is a federal law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1976 and administered by the EPA. The TSCA regulates chemicals not regulated by other U.S. federal statutes, including chemicals already in commerce and the introduction of new chemicals.

    The TSCA’s three main objectives are to:
    (a) Assess and regulate new commercial chemicals before they enter the market.
    (b) Regulate chemicals already existing in 1976 that posed an "unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment", as for example PCBs, lead, mercury and radon.
    (c) Regulate these chemicals' distribution and use.

    The TSCA provides the EPA with the authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. Certain substances are generally excluded from the TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides.

    The TSCA addresses the production, importation, use, and disposal of specific chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.

    Various sections of the TSCA provide the authority to:
    (1) Require, under Section 5, pre-manufacture notification for "new chemical substances" before manufacture.
    (2) Require, under Section 4, testing of chemicals by manufacturers, importers, and processors where risks or exposures of concern are found.
    (3) Issue Significant New Use Rules (SNURs), under Section 5, when it identifies a "significant new use" that could result in exposures to, or releases of, a substance of concern.
    (4) Maintain the TSCA Inventory, under Section 8, which contains more than 83,000 chemicals. As new chemicals are commercially manufactured or imported, they are placed on the list.
    (5) Require those importing or exporting chemicals, under Sections 12(b) and 13, to comply with certification reporting and/or other requirements.
    (6) Require, under Section 8, reporting and record-keeping by persons who manufacture, import, process, and/or distribute chemical substances in commerce.
    (7) Require, under Section 8(e), that any person who manufactures (including imports), processes, or distributes in commerce a chemical substance or mixture and who obtains information which reasonably supports the conclusion that such substance or mixture presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment to immediately inform EPA, except where EPA has been adequately informed of such information.  EPA screens all TSCA b Section 8(e) submissions as well as voluntary "For Your Information" (FYI) submissions. The latter are not required by law but are submitted by industry and public interest groups for a variety of reasons.

    The Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) manages programs under the TSCA and the Pollution Prevention Act. Under these laws, the EPA evaluates new and existing chemicals and their risks and finds ways to prevent or reduce pollution before it gets into the environment.
  3. Explain the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act.
    On June 22, 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which updates the TSCA, the nation’s primary chemicals management law.

    The act includes much needed improvements such as:
    (1) A mandate for the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines.
    (2) Risk-based chemical assessments.
    (3) Increased public transparency for chemical information.
    (4) A consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law.