Electricians, firefighters, roofers, plumbers, homeowners, and school maintenance workers are among those whose contact with asbestos—and other hazardous chemicals—the EPA plans to ignore, according to physicians and public health officials.
When maintenance workers strip and wax an asbestos-tile floor, when electricians move a ceiling tile in a building with spray-applied asbestos fireproofing, and when technicians fix boilers in rooms with asbestos-containing insulation, they can be exposed to the deadly mineral, Celeste Monforton, a public health professional who lectures at Texas State University, told Bloomberg Environment.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has blindfolded itself to the health risks these and many other workers, along with residents, face from exposures to asbestos and nine other chemicals the agency is examining, Monforton said in comments recently submitted to the EPA on behalf of the American Public Health Association.
These people “will be invisible” because the EPA’s risk analysis strategy will not take their exposures into account as it decides whether the chemicals pose enough risk to warrant some type of regulation to reduce exposures, said Monforton.
Monforton helped write a series of comments the association recently submitted to the EPA about the agency’s most recent plans to evaluate the 10 chemicals.
When EPA actions are open to public comment—as is the case here—the agency typically will only say that it will consider all perspectives and information submitted. The agency has, however, defended limiting the exposures it examines as it decides whether commercial uses of chemicals should be restricted.
The EPA must make final decisions within about two years.
In its plans to make those decisions, the agency says it won’t examine every way people could be exposed to any of the 10 chemicals.
For example, if a Clean Water Act regulation already applies to a compound, waterborne exposures may not be examined.
The EPA also has said it will focus solely on ongoing commercial uses of certain chemicals—meaning it won’t consider that people might continue to be exposed from old uses, such as asbestos being in buildings.
Most developed and developing countries have banned new uses of asbestos. The few exceptions include China, Russia, and the U.S.
But most countries that have banned asbestos still have the problem of legacy asbestos in homes and buildings. Some of those countries have developed systems to warn occupants about possible exposure.
Ongoing uses of asbestos in the U.S. that the EPA will examine include its presence in equipment used to make chlorine, caustic soda, and titanium dioxide.
The EPA must make an initial decision by next year whether asbestos, pigment violet 29, a group of three fire retardants being considered as a single chemical, and seven solvents—1-bromopropane, 1,4-dioxane, carbon tetrachloride, methylene chloride, n-methylpyrrolidone, perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene—pose an unreasonable risk of injuring people or the environment.
The 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments require a final decision from the EPA on whether these substance pose an unreasonable risk no later than mid-2020.
If the EPA were to find that any of the 10 substances poses an unreasonable risk, it is required to regulate them to reduce that risk.
“If EPA does not adequately protect Americans’ health and environment, local and state governments throughout the country will bear the extraordinary costs necessary to treat people exposed to these dangerous chemicals and clean up preventable pollution,” Kathleen C. Schmid, senior counsel for the environmental law division of New York City, told Bloomberg Environment.
Few Industry Voices
As of Aug. 23, few companies or trade associations had offered their views on the risk assessment plans, called “problem formulations,” that the EPA released in June. Comments were due Aug. 16.
Those few manufacturers that did, such as Honeywell, ICL-IP America Inc., and Kemira, provided the agency details on how they use a specific chemical or scientific data the agency might not have, but which suggests a chemical they make would pose less of a risk than previously thought.
The BASF Corp. told the agency it will no longer make one of the 10 chemicals the EPA is evaluating, a solvent called 1,4-dioxane, by the end of this year.
New York City, attorneys general from 11 states, physicians, public health officials, and the National Cancer Registrars Association, which tracks deaths from cancer, criticized all 10 of EPA’s risk analysis plans. These groups, which don’t typically weigh in on EPA’s chemical policies, claim they believe the agency would ignore many exposures to these chemicals.
They also said the agency shouldn’t presume that existing regulations adequately protect people and the environment from exposure to these chemicals. The agency used that rationale to justify decisions not to look at a variety of ways people could be exposed to the 10 chemicals.
Firefighters, remodelers, and other workers are among the many people that would remain inadequately protected under the EPA’s plans, Pat O’Connor, director of government affairs for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, told Bloomberg Environment and the EPA. The college represents more than 4,000 physicians and other health-care professionals.
Some of those workers would still be expected to get cancer and other diseases even if exposed to these chemicals at concentrations allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations, O’Connor said.
Public employees, small business contractors, and many other workers also are not covered by OSHA regulations, said Randy Rabinowitz, executive director of the Occupational Safety & Health Law Project, which serves unions and workers injured by chemical exposures.
The EPA’s plans to ignore many exposures means it may incorrectly conclude the chemicals don’t pose an unreasonable risk of injury and don’t need to be controlled, Rabinowitz told Bloomberg Environment.
For eight of the 10 chemicals that lack detailed risk analyses, the EPA could calculate “risk values” that underestimate the extent to which the chemicals would cause injuries, she said. Risk values provide information such as chemical concentrations that would not be expected to cause illnesses other than cancer and estimates of how potent a carcinogenic chemical may be.
The agency’s risk values become evidence in toxic tort and other lawsuits, meaning the underestimated risks may favor corporate and other defendants in future litigation involving the chemicals, Rabinowitz said.
The EPA’s approach violates the TSCA amendments and scientific principles, Betsy Southerland, a former EPA official, told Bloomberg Environment.
The Environmental Protection Network, a coalition of former EPA staff Southerland represents, plans to keep raising such points as the agency’s risk evaluations proceed.
Decisions the agency would make based on its current risk strategy will be challenged in court when they become final actions that can be litigated, Southerland said.
Yet even if critics win eventually, it will take years and the agency’s risk analyses will have to be done again at taxpayers’ expense, she said.
The consequence is “all those years lost with people’s health at risk,” Southerland said.