30 Years Ago Today, EPA Tried – and Failed – To Ban Asbestos
WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to ban asbestos. It failed, and despite more than 1 million deaths of Americans since then, now the Trump EPA is working to keep the deadly carcinogen legal.
In 1989, the EPA had spent a decade and $10 million producing a 100,000-page administrative record laying out the evidence that even a single exposure to asbestos could cause cancer and other deadly diseases. Under the administration of George H.W. Bush, on July 12 of that year, the agency declared it would use its authority under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, to ban virtually all products containing asbestos.
The move was met with swift opposition by corporations that used asbestos and chemical industry trade groups. They filed a lawsuit claiming a ban was too costly and the alternatives were neither more effective nor safer than asbestos. In 1991, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the EPA. That decision not only kept many uses of asbestos legal but also for decades effectively stymied the EPA’s efforts to ban any chemical.
- More than 1 million Americans have died from preventable asbestos-caused diseases, according to analysis by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, or ADAO, of data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington.
- Although domestic production of asbestos has ended, ADAO’s analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data show that an estimated 375,000 metric tons of asbestos have been imported to the U.S.
- Nearly 70 other countries have banned asbestos.
The Environmental Working Group Action Fund’s analysis of federal mortality data estimates that asbestos-triggered diseases kill an estimated 15,000 Americans a year. Last year, an international peer-reviewed study found the annual death toll from asbestos exposure may be much higher – nearly 40,000 Americans a year, and more than 255,000 a year worldwide.
In 2016, after more than a decade of work, Congress passed legislation revamping the TSCA law, giving the EPA renewed authority to ban asbestos. President Obama signed the bill into law. But before the agency could use its newfound regulatory muscle, Donald Trump won the presidency. Under Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the Trump EPA is laying the groundwork for the agency to find that asbestos is safe and should remain legal.
In April of this year, Wheeler issued a new rule that would allow manufacturers to resume abandoned uses of asbestos if approved by the EPA. Internal agency memos obtained by the ADAO and reported by The New York Times show top political appointees at EPA ignored calls by agency scientists and lawyers to implement an outright ban, as Wheeler and others were crafting plans to keep asbestos legal.
The chlor-alkali industry is the main importer of tons of raw asbestos, which relies on the heat-resistant fiber to produce chlorine and other chemicals.
Members of Congress are making efforts to block the Trump administration’s move to allow asbestos to remain legal for use. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) would ban the importation, manufacture and distribution of all forms of asbestos within one year of the bill’s passage.
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act would also require the EPA, the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a comprehensive report to assess the “presence of asbestos in residential, commercial, industrial, public, and school buildings” and “the extent of exposure and risk to human health associated with the asbestos present in such buildings.”
“Who could argue that something as deadly as asbestos should remain legal?” asked Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of ADAO. “Sadly, two of them are the very people with the power to ban it once and for all: President Trump and EPA Administrator Wheeler. After more than 1 million deaths, it’s past time for Congress to pass legislation to protect future generations of Americans from further exposure to asbestos.”
The legislation is named after Linda Reinstein’s husband, Alan Reinstein, who died in May 2006 of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused only by asbestos.
“For more than 50 years, scientists and medical experts have known that asbestos kills,” said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group. “That should make banning it an easy call. But these are not normal times, with the Trump administration continually making decisions that place Americans’ health at direct risk. By passing this legislation, Congress can send a message to President Trump that we must put public health and safety ahead of the chlorine industry’s profits."
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.