You'd think, given how long we've known that asbestos causes cancer, the decision to ban asbestos would face no opposition. While every leading scientific, medical, and environmental organization has urged governments across the world to ban asbestos use on a global scale, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) – aka the chemical industry’s front group – is begging the United States government to give them a special allowance to continue using deadly asbestos in America.
The United States is one of the last holdouts in the industrialized world to tackle the asbestos crisis. Asbestos is currently legal and lethal in the U.S. But, for the first time in 30 years, an asbestos ban is imminently within reach.
By mid-December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to announce ten high-risk chemicals that will be evaluated for safety and potentially regulated over the course of the next five to seven years. This is a key component of the recently passed Lautenberg Act, which finally reforms our nation’s outdated and ineffective chemical safety laws. When signing into law the Lautenberg Act this June, President Obama singled out asbestos' legal status as an example of our failed chemical safety laws and why the Lautenberg reforms were so desperately needed. Since then, there has been a groundswell of support from legislators, unions, nonprofits, and even industries that were once heavy asbestos users, urging the EPA to ensure asbestos is at the top of the list.
Cue the ACC: On August 24, the Chlorine Institute (CI), the chlor-alkali division of the chemical conglomerate, wrote to the EPA urging them to “take the industry’s efforts into consideration as it determines whether to select asbestos among the initial 10 chemicals for risk evaluation.” The ACC’s support for this plea relies on two points: first, they claim that since the chlor-alkali industry was exempted from previous attempts at an asbestos ban, they should be exempted again, and second, they claim the “industry relies on technology that safely uses asbestos.”
While many Americans have never heard of the chlor-alkali industry, we should not underestimate the influence this industry and the ACC have. So let’s unpack each point one at a time and see exactly how the industry’s continued use of asbestos could impact lives across the world.
The Toxic Tradeoff
The industry’s previous exemption is no longer relevant today. There’s an important difference between the circumstances of the chlor-alkali industry during the last attempt to ban asbestos in 1989 vs. today. In 1989, the asbestos consumption by the chlor-alkali industry was dwarfed by the usage in other sectors such as roofing, construction, and automotive industries, per the United States Geological Survey (USGS). In fact, chlor-alkali’s usage didn’t debut onto the USGS chart until 2011 — just as longtime heavy-consuming industries began to opt for safer substitutes. Since 2013, the chlor-alkali industry has become the largest user of asbestos; last year it accounted for a full 88% of all asbestos imported into America.
Human Rights at Risk
The ACC’s safety claims are misleading and demonstrate a complete disregard for the men and women who mine the asbestos used by the chlor-alkali industry and the families who live near chlor-alkali plants. The industry says their use of asbestos is safe because it is used in a restricted environment and in a wet slurry form, reducing the risk of fibers becoming airborne. In 2008, the ACC even published a 30-page long manual with detailed instructions on how to handle asbestos in their production processes. But without question, for someone, somewhere along the chain of production, the chlor-alkali industry’s use of asbestos is not safe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no safe level of exposure.
The industry claims to have put measures in place to protect chlor-alkali workers from on-the-job asbestos exposure, but that does nothing for those who are exposed outside of the industry’s plants, including those in the communities surrounding the plants. At a recent briefing at the U.S. Senate hosted by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), Dr. Barry Castleman detailed seven possible points of asbestos exposure pathways throughout the chlor-alkali process, stressing that the asbestos is transported, stored, unpacked, and disposed in its dangerous dry form.
The industry has been tight-lipped on the precise location of plants using asbestos technology, but in a 2007 hearing of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) testified that it was used in plants in Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Nevada, New York, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
It is suspect and negligent that the chlor-alkali industry is so secretive about the location of their plants that use asbestos. Even minimal asbestos exposure can cause cancer, and if it is being transported, processed, and disposed in a community, the people of have a right to know they’re at risk.
Possibly the most deadly and damning of these exposure pathways is in the Brazilian asbestos mines. A full 95% of the asbestos imported into the U.S. last year came from Brazil. As the USGS reported in 2016, “Domestic mining of asbestos ceased in 2002 owing to the decline in U.S. asbestos markets associated with health and liability issues; the United States is wholly dependent on imports to meet manufacturing needs.” (emphasis added)
Translation: We weren’t willing to continually subject American miners to the lethal threats associated with asbestos mining, but as long as they’re in another country, who cares?
It is morally reprehensible that U.S. companies continue to patronize and profit from asbestos mining in developing countries like Brazil.
Manufacturing Needs or Manufacturing Greed?
Now, let’s revisit this pesky little phrase from the aforementioned USGS report — “to meet manufacturing needs.” This highlights an important concern with the chlor-alkali’s desire to continue using deadly asbestos despite the fact that alternatives to asbestos exist, and are likely even more economically viable in the long run.
The ACC letter states: “The asbestos diaphragm process is one of three manufacturing processes utilized by the chlor-alkali sector,” meaning there are two alternatives that do not rely on the use of a known human carcinogen. The industry’s new technology is more economical and efficient, and it’s the only technology used when building new plants—meaning eventually, the asbestos plants will be phased out anyway.
Their steep jump in consumption of imported asbestos, however, would suggest that the chlor-alkali industry has been stockpiling asbestos while they still can in order to keep these plants in production for as long as possible. In asking for their use of asbestos to be exempted from a ban, they are trying to avoid pressing fast-forward on the modernization process.
TSCA Top 10 or Bust
It’s no secret that the American public does not have much trust in chemicals or their government’s ability to protect them from the dangerous ones. Naming asbestos on the top 10 high-risk chemical list for priority review under the Lautenberg Act reforms should be a no-brainer for the EPA. Asbestos was the unrivaled poster child for the need to reform our nation’s chemical safety laws, and if asbestos isn’t named in December, it will signal the failure of the Lautenberg reforms.
While we wait on the EPA to act, there is still work that can be done to save lives. Members of Congress have the opportunity to impose a ban on asbestos within 18 months by passing the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2016, introduced in September by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). This bill bans asbestos in a fraction of the time it would take under the Lautenberg Act. It would also require the EPA to “publish an identification and assessment of the current and reasonably anticipated importation, distribution in commerce, and uses of, and exposures to, asbestos,” protecting the public’s right to know when they’re at risk.
Time and time again, the federal government has chosen to protect the “rights” of the industry, which has amounted to protecting their “right” to do irreversible damage to public health and the environment. It’s time, now, to reverse that trend with federal policy that puts the rights of the people ahead of the rights of chemical corporations.