The EPA continues to try to pass regulations banning asbestos, while the industry continues to lobby to block forthcoming legislation.
Currently, the only remaining form of asbestos imported into the United States is chrysotile, or “white” asbestos, which is found in products such as asbestos membranes, gaskets, brake pads, aftermarket automotive brakes/pads, and other automotive friction products, among others Seals, which are also imported into the United States, according to an EPA press release.
Used exclusively by the chlor-alkali industry, raw chrysotile asbestos “is a flexible material capable of separating molecules and is central to about a third of the country’s chlorine manufacturing capacity,” according to the Washington Post. “The United States Chamber of Commerce (USCC), chemical manufacturers’ American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the oil industry’s American Petroleum Institute (API) say banning the substance as quickly as the EPA has proposed will hurt the country’s chlorine supply could lead to shortages of clean drinking water or skyrocketing prices.”
In 2016, Congress revised the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to provide clear requirements and an EPA mandate to comprehensively prioritize and evaluate chemicals and introduce strong and timely safeguards against unreasonable risks.
On April 5, 2022, the EPA announced a proposed rule to ban the continued use of the only known form of asbestos currently imported into the United States. It was the first-ever risk management rule to be issued under the new process to assess and address the safety of existing chemicals under the 2016 TSCA.
This proposed rule, which could become final by the end of 2023, is opposed by many in the industry, while environmental activists are frustrated at slow progress towards a total ban of all types of asbestos, the Washington Post adds.
Currently, according to Mesothelioma.com, more than 60 countries have completely banned the use of the mineral.
“EPA’s two-year schedule could result in immediate difficulties, including multiple chlorine shortages, supply chain disruptions, impediments to drinking water disinfection processes, dramatic price increases, and far-reaching impacts on economic development opportunities,” the ACC said in a statement. “Industry sectors such as public utilities, construction, development, manufacturing, unions and community centers would be impacted when the two-year phase-out of chrysotile asbestos goes into effect.”
The EPA disagrees.
“While chlorine is a commonly used disinfectant in water treatment, there are only 10 chlor-alkali plants in the United States that still use asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide,” adds the EPA press release. “One plant is expected to close this year. The nine remaining chlor-alkali plants using asbestos diaphragms are between 40 and 123 years old, and none have increased the use of asbestos diaphragms in about 17 years. The use of asbestos diaphragms is declining and these remaining plants account for only about a third of the country’s chlor-alkali production. There are alternatives to asbestos-containing diaphragms for chlor-alkali plants, and the use of alternatives, particularly membrane cells, accounts for nearly half of the country’s chlor-alkali production.”
The EPA has been prevented from advancing further asbestos regulations by chemical analyzes made under the Trump administration, the federal Circuit Court of Appeals wrongful ruling on asbestos testing, and budget and staffing constraints.
Michal Freedhoff, chief of the EPA’s chemical safety and pollution division, said the pace for chemical reviews will pick up later this year, according to The Washington Post.
“The ongoing fight over asbestos suggests it could be a grind for the EPA to comply with the law and enact all these new rules,” said Bob Sussman, attorney and former EPA assistant administrator during President Bill’s tenure Clinton, in the Washington Post. “The law was a compromise that will only work effectively if industry can accept some restrictions on commercially important chemicals,” he adds.
“The industry game plan has been to attack the EPA for exaggeration while working to ensure that the EPA achieves far less than the public and many in Congress expected,” continues Sussman, who now runs the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization represents. “It’s a strategy designed to make a struggling agency even weaker and more paralyzed by arguing and contesting every decision.”