The Environmental Protection Agency says that, contrary to recent reports, it is moving to close a loophole on asbestos, rather than expand the ways the deadly chemical can be used.
An agency official pointed to two asbestos-related policy announcements made by the agency this summer -- including a rarely-used process called "significant new use rule," or SNUR -- and said they create "a regulatory backstop where none has existed before."
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"The SNUR is really a good news story for public health protection," said Nancy Beck, a scientist and the deputy assistant administrator for EPA's chemical program.
Critics of the agency's move say it could have done more, including an outright ban on the use and importation of asbestos.
Beck's comments to CNN followed a series of reports -- including in a business news publication and an architectural trade newspaper -- that the agency was weakening protections on the chemical and was opening up a process for taking applications to use asbestos in more than a dozen ways, such as adhesive, roofing material and floor tile.
While the proposed rule does create that process, Beck pointed out those uses are currently legal -- meaning the regulation actually will restrict the allowable uses of asbestos.
Asbestos occurs naturally, and miners extract its long fibers that have been used to strengthen cement, filter chemicals like chlorine and hold together materials like insulation. Exposure and inhalation is linked to mesothelioma and other cancers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2017 shows around 3,000 people die annually of mesothelioma.
EPA regulation of asbestos dates back to a 1970s chemical law and a series of regulations crafted by the agency and other governmental bodies. In 1989, EPA recognized the health hazards and largely banned asbestos, but grandfathered in ways the chemical was still being used at the time. That ban was largely overturned by a federal court. Over the last 30 years, industries -- seeing cancer deaths and the lawsuits that ensued -- largely phased asbestos out of their manufacturing and products.
A 2016 amendment to the 1970s chemical law required the EPA to periodically review chemicals and their hazards, and gave the agency new authority to restrict or ban chemicals. Agency officials then looked at the grandfathered exceptions, determined which are no longer in use and worked to close the loophole, Beck said.
"None of these uses are banned today ... but nothing prevents them from coming back to market," she said, explaining why the EPA took action.
Betsy Southerland, a former EPA scientist who resigned over the Trump administration's leadership of the agency, said the rule was intended to be broader when the bipartisan legislation was crafted during the Obama administration.
"The original plan for the asbestos significant new use rule was for the rule to list the known ongoing uses of asbestos and then state that any other use an industry might want to initiate in the future" would require EPA review, she told CNN.
She said an "open ended" approach would better protect people, because "there is no way EPA can claim to know today every possible new use industry might want in the future."
The Environmental Working Group, which supports a full ban on asbestos, said the agency is not performing a strong enough assessment of the chemical's hazards.
"We're very concerned that EPA is taking a lot of shortcuts in that risk evaluation," said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney who works on toxic chemical issues at EWG.
"There is lots of asbestos still out in the environment, particularly in older homes and schools," she said, and the agency's assessment processes does not take into account those legacy uses.
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