In June, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly announced it would review applications for new uses of asbestos, the mineral that was widespread in buildings, clothing, and industrial products until the 1970s, when its links to cancer were firmly established.
The news caught fire on Tuesday as yet another example—alongside gas-guzzling cars and coal power plants—of the Trump administration dragging the country’s environmental and public health back in time. Nearly 15,000 Americans die of asbestos-related diseases each year, according to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, often from exposure sustained decades earlier.
In fact, contra Chelsea Clinton, asbestos was never “largely banned” in the United States—and even an EPA run by chemical industry lawyers will have trouble engineering its comeback.
As a developer of a certain age, Trump lived through the fall of asbestos from miracle mineral to the poster child for carcinogenic chemicals. Asbestos use in the U.S. has fallen by 99.9 percent since 1973, according to the United States Geological Survey. But he had his own theory. “I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob,” he wrote in his 1997 tome The Art of the Comeback, “because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented.”
Despite Trump’s supposition, the links between asbestos exposure and cancer, in particular lung cancer and mesothelioma, have been well-established for decades. Still, almost all uses of asbestos are legal in the United States. Technically, the EPA’s “significant new use rule,” or SNUR, represents an additional layer of scrutiny for asbestos use.
A little background: In 1989, the EPA tried to ban asbestos outright, under a 1976 law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. The phased prohibition was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, and the agency succeeded in halting only six then-obsolete uses of asbestos, including corrugated paper and flooring felt.
So the June rule ensures that any U.S. companies who want to use asbestos in all its nonbanned uses—products like reinforced plastics, millboard, floor tiles, and roofing felt—are subject to EPA review. As the EPA points out, without the June rule, any company could start importing or processing asbestos for floor tiles whenever it wanted. (Note: You can still comment on this rule through the Federal eRulemaking Portal until Friday.)
But Democrats should still be mad. The decision represents an about-face from 2016, when the TSCA—the law too weak to justify the asbestos ban and phase out—was strengthened in Congress. At that point, the expectation was that the 1989 ban and phaseout could be attempted again, bringing the U.S. in sync with the rest of the developed world. When he signed the new law, President Barack Obama cited asbestos as an example of the old law’s inadequacy. “The system was so complex, it was so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos,” he said.
The Trump administration has done the opposite of what advocates expected. On the last day of the Obama administration, in a now-vanished press release, the EPA announced 10 toxic chemicals that would be the first to be re-evaluated under the revised TSCA. Asbestos was one of them. In May, Trump’s EPA announced it would not investigate indirect exposure to those chemicals, including in air or water. Asbestos that winds up in landfills would no longer be included in the agency’s risk assessments, nor would so-called legacy uses—meaning older buildings with degrading, asbestos materials no longer intended for manufacture. Those considerations would guide the way the EPA reviews new asbestos uses that come before it.
All that said, it’s extremely unlikely that companies will be chomping at the bit to put asbestos back into your house. They have been free to use the stuff for decades. But the last U.S. asbestos producer shut down in 2002. In 2016, only two companies, Axiall Corp. and Olin Corp., imported asbestos in significant quantities—both to synthesize industrial chlorine for use in PVC piping and other plastics. (This process was exempted from both the failed EPA ban and the European Union’s comprehensive ban in 2005, on the grounds that asbestos use was confined to the production process.) According to the USGS, the chloralkali industry likely accounted for 100 percent of domestic asbestos consumption in 2016. While some finished products containing asbestos—including brake liners, roof coatings, and gaskets—are imported into the country, their total value is estimated at less than $5 million.
What explains the cratering in asbestos use, even as the EPA had its hands tied by the 1991 court ruling? Health and liability issues. Because asbestos is so indisputably linked to cancer, asbestos lawsuits are a multibillion-dollar industry. Approximately 100 companies have been forced into bankruptcy by asbestos litigation, to the extent that Congress had to amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow special asbestos trusts. Plenty of noncarcinogenic substitutes are readily available, and even the chloralkali industry is slowly changing its ways.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits continue. As recently as 2012, some of the most expensive Google searches for click-through ads used the word mesothelioma, as trial lawyers competed for victims of asbestos exposure. Just last month, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a $4.69 billion fine to 22 women who claimed the company’s baby powder and other talc-based products were contaminated with asbestos and caused ovarian cancer. (Talc and asbestos are mined in proximity.) The company is appealing.
In 2010, Garlock Sealing Technologies filed for bankruptcy over costs from asbestos lawsuits. EnPro, of which Garlock was a part, wound up setting up a $480 million trust to resolve current and future complaints. What did Garlock make? Asbestos-lined gaskets—one of the products the Trump administration is reviewing new asbestos uses for. Getting back into the asbestos-lined gasket racket does not seem like a good business decision.