Asbestos and the EPA

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Asbestos Thrives While People Die

Asbestos is composed of complex chemical properties that are simply life-threatening. Asbestos still remains in decaying manufacturing sites, unused shipyards, old railroad tracks, old buildings, and old cars. While asbestos remains on site, it pollutes the soil, the air and the water. Over 30,000 people have confirmed deaths from mesothelioma and asbestosis. Those statistics do not include the thousands of lung cancer and other pleural lung disorders caused by asbestos exposure, nor do they include the unconfirmed cases.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is a government agency with responsibility to regulate the harmful effects of asbestos to protect the general public through laws established in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The first chapter of Title 40 addresses the organizational structure and purpose of the EPA, it declares the organization must abate pollution and work with other agencies. When the general public thinks about air pollution and emissions, it’s easy to think about congested cities, gas fumes, and the toxic fumes emanating from smoke stacks. But asbestos is a hazardous air pollutant under the Asbestos National Emissions Standards. When regulations on air pollution are threatened, so are regulations concerning asbestos.

Occupational asbestos exposure has been reduced, but not eradicated. Mining asbestos in the United States stopped in 2002, but truckloads of asbestos still wheel into the country. Even as late as 2015, about 306 tons of asbestos made it into the United States to be used for new automobiles, buildings, and even potting soil—even though the inherent dangers of asbestos and resulting mesothelioma and lung diseases are well-established. In a 2016 release regarding an asbestos-related environmental crime, the Department of Justice stated “Congress has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos,” and that asbestos “is now known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.” Scientists, doctors, lawyers and politicians have all reached the consensus that asbestos is deadly. Unfortunately, there are still manufacturers, businesses, employers and employees that don’t want to admit to the dangers of asbestos and lung-related diseases. The behemoth companies making a profit off of asbestos don’t want to lose business. Thus, the EPA, OSHA, FDA and other agencies are responsible for keeping people safe using laws created by elected representatives.

Chemicals and New Laws Keep the EPA Busy

The United States Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, right about the time asbestos use was at its peak— 803,000 metric tons in 1973, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. It derives its powers from laws and funds set by Congress. Sometimes laws will give the EPA more power, and sometimes the laws take power away. In 1976, The TSCA became a law to protect people from industrial chemicals. However, in negotiating the law, the Act allowed over 60,000 industrial chemicals that pre-dated the law to be grandfathered in and stay in the market—unless “unreasonable risk” could be established in ninety days.

Ninety days is the standard for testing now. The EPA reports it tests around 1000 new chemicals a year, including from between June, 2016 and July, 2017. At any given time, the EPA is testing around 300 new chemicals. Testing has clearly improved since the 1970s, today we have toxicity estimation software which runs linear formulas of molecular structures such as “Toxicity = ax1 + bx2 + c.” Unfortunately, not all tests can be left solely to computer algorithms, and just one test on a new chemical can cost well over $100,000. Testing chemicals is expensive, but so is compliance. The EPA budgeted 23.0 million dollars for its 2017 fiscal year Toxic Substances Compliance Grants for states and tribes to use towards asbestos compliance, and compliance with other substances, such as lead paint.

Chemicals, particularly asbestos, received more legal attention in 2016 when the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act was passed to update the Act on toxic substances. Asbestos was one of the first set of ten chemical listed to be subject to substantial risk evaluation. Many health advocates heralded this as a step towards and asbestos ban. The new Regulatory Accountability Act, proposed in 2017, seeks to hinder the attempts to ban asbestos. For now, the Lautenberg Act is on the books, and EPA is a step closer to preventing more deaths from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other painful lung-related deaths.
Not everyone follows regulations as evidenced by the 2016 guilty plea of James Powers, who failed to use proper procedures when converting an old building into condominiums. Asbestos could be in a building you visit regularly. If you know someone who has been exposed to asbestos, or need help with an environmental cleanup, call an attorney today. The regulations are voluminous. A lawyer that focuses his practice in asbestos related diseases can assess your exposure and advise you of your legal rights.