Asbestos—that long-outlawed naturally occurring mineral credited with causing mesothelioma—may be making a comeback. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on June 1 a Significant New Use Rule that would allow new products to potentially be manufactured with asbestos. The proposed rule also allows manufacturers to receive the EPA’s approval prior to importing or manufacturing asbestos for particular uses. The U.S. has restricted the widespread use of asbestos, a known carcinogen, but it has not entirely banned it.
The material was used for applications including building insulation until the 1970s, when a number of countries banned its use; according to a recent report by Fast Company, the EPA’s 1973 Clean Air Act and 1989 Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule limited the usage, but the U.S. “remains one of the only developed nations that has still not banned it outright, in a clear ongoing tussle between corporate and public interest.” Asbestos-related fatalities in the U.S., according to data from this year cited by Fast Company, reach nearly 40,000 annually.
As a result of the rule, asbestos may soon be found in products like adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof coatings, reinforced plastics, roofing felt, floor tile and other building materials, according to PBS. But it won’t be clear if the rule will lead to an increase in asbestos usage until the agency starts reviewing new requests. The “rule creates a disincentive for manufacturers and distributors who want to bring these products to market, because they can’t immediately do so,” according to Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, who tells PBS that the manufacturers “have to come to us for a thorough evaluation of the environmental and human health risks before they can go to market.”
Sarah Dodge, the senior vice president of Advocacy and Relationships at the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which is submitting formal comments to the EPA, asked Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the EPA, to “review and eliminate the use of asbestos in domestic or imported materials,” in a recent statement. “Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, reauthorized in 2016, the EPA must evaluate and determine whether existing chemical substances pose a risk to the public or the environment. Asbestos causes significant and irreversible risk to those who come into direct contact with friable and airborne fibers,” writes Dodge.
“Once asbestos fibers enter the lungs, there is no way to remove them, and they can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. This risk is especially acute for those who mine the vermiculite and those who work in demolition construction, but it is also significant for anyone who disturbs the materials once installed, whether homeowners, contractors, facilities staff, or others. This risk far outweighs any benefits that could be considered within the use of asbestos. As part of the Significant New Use Rule, the AIA urges the EPA to rule against the use of asbestos in all cases.”
Other designers and architects shared their thoughts on Twitter. “As an architect, I’m absolutely outraged that the @EPA is approving the use of asbestos in manufacturing again. Glad @AIANational agrees,” wrote Tim Kearney, a Pennsylvania architect who is also running for a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate. Los Angeles firm Brooks + Scarpa tweeted, “We need to stand against this in a big way. Materials that kill people are being allowed back into the manufacturing process.”
AIA president Carl Elefante voiced the organization’s concerns about safety and health in another statement: “This is especially concerning for contractors, builders, architects and homeowners who could be exposed to dislodged asbestos fibers during the demolition and building process if they are unaware of its presence. The EPA has offered no compelling reason for considering new products using asbestos, especially when the consequences are well known and have tragically affected the lives of so many people. The EPA should be doing everything possible to curtail asbestos in the United States and beyond—not providing new pathways that expose the public to its dangers.”
The EPA had been receiving public comment on the proposed rule until last Friday.