On March 30, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released a draft risk evaluation. This assessment confirmed that exposure to asbestos continues to pose unreasonable risks to workers who process or use asbestos-containing sheet gaskets, brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, and other vehicle friction products and gaskets. The EPA also concluded that the processing and use of asbestos-containing diaphragms by the chlor-alkali industry poses an unreasonable risk to the health of workers.
The EPA did not evaluate the risks of so-called “legacy uses” of asbestos, despite a November 2019 court order to do so. Legacy uses are when a substance is no longer used in a particular product, but those products, such as insulation and construction materials, still exist in older buildings. Experts estimate that the biggest source of exposure to asbestos for construction workers, firefighters and the general public is from such legacy products manufactured in the 1970s and earlier.
In the 2019 ruling, the court directed the EPA to consider legacy uses as well as the disposal of asbestos-containing products that are currently found in older buildings. Although the EPA announced that it will evaluate such risks in a supplemental evaluation, it did not specify when.
Exposure to chrysotile asbestos, the most commonly used form of asbestos and the only form evaluated by the EPA in its recent risk evaluation, is associated with the development of lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the linings of the lungs and other organs. Chrysotile is currently imported into the US in raw form exclusively for the chlor-alkali industry, according to the EPA. In 2018, the US imported 750 metric tons of raw chrysotile.
The chlor-alkali industry uses asbestos in semipermeable diaphragms. The diaphragms prevent sodium hydroxide from reacting with chlorine and allows the two chemicals to be separated for further processing. Some chlor-alkali facilities use polymer ion-exchange membranes, such as Nafion membranes, as alternatives to asbestos diaphragms.
The EPA’s asbestos draft assessment is the ninth of the first 10 chemical risk evaluations that the agency is conducting under the 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA faces a June deadline to finalize all 10 evaluations.
Advocacy groups, however, are urging the agency to delay external reviews of some assessments, including asbestos, because many reviewers are preoccupied with other responsibilities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Many leading asbestos experts are medical doctors who are overwhelmed with supporting their colleagues and caring for patients as virus cases mount,” leaders of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization wrote in a March 30 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “The asbestos risk evaluation is simply too important for EPA to proceed without the informed and thoughtful participation of leading asbestos experts.”
The EPA declined a request from environmental groups to postpone a March 24–27 meeting of its external advisors to review the agency’s draft assessment with respect to trichloroethylene. Likewise, it intends to hold a virtual meeting of the committee to discuss the asbestos evaluation on April 27–30, 2020.
Click here for additional information on the EPA’s treatment of risks related to exposure of asbestos under the Trump Administration.