The EPA’s analysis of asbestos underestimates the extent to which people are exposed to the mineral and its potential to cause cancer and other diseases, an agency science advisory panel said.
“Most exposures are not being captured,” said Henry Anderson, a retired physician serving on the EPA’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, which was critiquing the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft evaluation of asbestos’ risks throughout a June 8-11 meeting.
Demolition workers; workers in the bathroom fixtures and other industries that use talc, which may be contaminated with asbestos; and those working with asbestos-containing brakes for vehicles like motorcycles, snowmobiles, and tractors—beyond just the car brakes the agency did examine—are among the people the agency omitted from its draft evaluation of the mineral, committee members said.
“Our preference would be to see a more complete picture of risk, a true asbestos risk assessment,” Committee Chairman Kenneth Portier, a retired American Cancer Society biostatistician, said Wednesday.
The agency focused on less than a dozen ways one form of asbestos, chrysotile, is used. Yet the document’s title—"Draft Risk Evaluation for Asbestos"—suggests it examined all forms and many ways which people may be exposed, committee members said.
Federal law recognizes six forms of asbestos.
The EPA also underestimated the mineral’s potential to harm by focusing only on fatal lung cancers and mesothelioma to the exclusion of other diseases, the committee said.
EPA staff repeatedly said during the meeting that the agency would use recommendations the committee and public makes to revise its draft evaluation of ongoing uses of asbestos, and a second document it intends to prepare looking at discontinued uses of the mineral.
But the committee said it’s unclear whether the agency’s planned two-part analysis of asbestos will provide the public a full picture of the asbestos uses, exposures, and potential to kill or cause other cancers or diseases, such as the buildup of fibers in the lungs that make it hard to breathe.
Attorneys who’ve defended companies in toxic tort cases involving alleged injuries from asbestos are concerned, however, that even the EPA’s narrow analysis will increase litigation.
“Agency documents are routinely used as evidence in asbestos personal injury litigation, both as exhibits and as reliance materials by expert witnesses,” said Ellen S. Tenenbaum and Craig H. Zimmerman, both partners specializing in toxic tort in the New York offices of McDermott Will and Emery LLP.
“This has been particularly true in asbestos personal injury litigation,” they wrote in comments about the agency’s draft risk evaluation.
Other written comments focused particular attention to the potential for companies making automobile parts to face increased lawsuits. The litigation risk results from the EPA’s preliminarily concluding that both mechanics and vehicle owners could face too great a risk of dying from cancer resulting from working with imported brakes that still contain asbestos.
But the agency’s analysis failed to support that conclusion, wrote Kelvin T. Wyles, a partner in Dentons’ Los Angeles office wrote on behalf of Morse TEC, which owns a former automotive parts company.
The “piecemeal” approach makes it unlikely that the “EPA will adequately protect workers from the deadly effects of asbestos,” wrote Earthjustice and the Occupational Safety & Health Law Project, on behalf of seven unions, in comments on the agency’s evaluation.
Without substantial changes the eventual regulations will not “fully protect the health of all people and communities,” wrote the American Public Health Association.
The 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments, which required the EPA to begin examining the risks of chemicals long used in commerce, also requires the agency to regulate any chemical that poses unreasonable risks of injuring people or the environment.
The agency’s draft analysis found nearly all ongoing uses of chrysotile asbestos too risky.
The committee’s critique of the EPA’s draft asbestos evaluation marks the last draft chemical analysis the panel will comment on for the first batch of 10 chemicals the agency began to examine in 2016 due to the TSCA amendments.
The agency already has started to analyze a second batch consisting of 20 chemicals. The exact role the committee will play going forward hasn’t been decided, but it may offer recommendations on overarching scientific issues instead of critiquing individual chemical assessments, said Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, EPA’s assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention.