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Environmental, advocacy groups react to EPA's new asbestos regulation

Asbestos hits close to home for Linda Reinstein. Her husband, Alan Reinstein, passed away from mesothelioma, a cancer frequently linked to the mineral commonly found in insulations, fire retardants, and other products.

Asbestos is personal for Linda Reinstein because her husband, Alan Reinstein, died from mesothelioma, a cancer often caused by exposure to the mineral commonly used in insulations, fire retarders and other products.

The news of a new rule set by the Environmental Protection Agency about asbestos was enough to make her cry.

Reinstein is president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a California-based national advocacy nonprofit that works to promote regulations on asbestos. The new EPA rule will ban ongoing use of a type of asbestos sometimes included in brake parts and used to produce water purification chemicals.

“I got congratulations messages from literally around the world,” said Reinstein, of Los Angeles. “I think they’re excited because there’s something positive done.”

Under the regulation released last week, the EPA has set compliance deadlines to transition away from uses of chrysotile asbestos.

According to the EPA, this type of asbestos is the only known form of the substance currently used in or imported to the United States. It is found in products including diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake blocks and aftermarket car brakes and linings.

Most consumer products that historically contained chrysotile asbestos have been discontinued, according to the EPA, but some industries, like the chlor-alkali sector, use asbestos in creating sodium hydroxide and chlorine. Two-thirds of the chlorine produced in the U.S. is produced without using asbestos, the EPA said.

The import of asbestos for chlor-alkali use is immediately banned under the rule, and use of the material will be phased out on varying scales depending on the industry.

Impact of the rule

As an asbestos regulation advocate, Reinstein’s feelings on the new rule are mixed. The ADAO has worked for the past several years to push for more asbestos restrictions. While the rule is a big step toward reducing disease or contamination from asbestos, she said, there’s still more to be done.

While the EPA described chrysotile as the only form of asbestos known to be imported, processed or distributed for use in the U.S., Reinstein and the ADAO would like to see the rule address five other asbestos fiber types: crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite.

“There’s a lot of unknowns with a rule that is based on six specific conditions of use. To imply that that is the only fiber that is used is wrong, because there is cross-contamination,” she said.

The organization also wants to see a shorter timeline for transitioning away from asbestos, and more focus on testing products for asbestos.

“It’s a great step, but it didn’t go far enough,” she said. “The job is not done — we have more to do.”

Asbestos expert Dr. Arthur Frank at Drexel University emphasized the regulation still has a long way to go. He looks ahead to the EPA’s planned “part 2” examination of legacy asbestos, meaning asbestos that is already in existing buildings, and other forms of asbestos.

“It’s not without some merit,” he said “I speak about it as a modest step forward. It does stop use of certain products, friction products for cars, but one of the things (is) that it only regulates chrysotile.”

Frank is worried that if companies are not allowed to use chrysotile, they might switch to using different types of asbestos and continue the problem. He also expressed frustration with the different deadlines given to companies to move away from asbestos products. According to the EPA release, some companies moving multiple facilities to non-asbestos technology get up to 12 years to convert a total of 3 facilities.

“Companies are very good at finding loopholes to regulations,” he said. “Nobody should think this is a comprehensive ban that is going to end the problem of asbestos.”

Local groups give their opinion

In Pennsylvania, local environmental organizations welcomed the new rule as a good first step.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, was happy to see this new regulation coming out of 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Asbestos was previously banned in 1989, but a 1991 court decision weakened the ban and reduced the power of the EPA under TSCA. The 2016 amendments require the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals and establish risk-based safety standards for new chemicals.

“This is really important and an important step, but hopefully one of many under the new regulation,” Naccarati-Chapkis said. “I see it as certainly a positive step, and hopefully one of many more that will come out of the EPA over the coming months and years to come, as they have more flexibility and ability to take a stronger stance on chemicals that we know are harmful.”

She hopes that the EPA uses the 2016 amendments to TSCA to limit or ban other harmful classes of chemicals, such as PFAS.

“Here, they looked at one particular form of asbestos, so to speak, and we know that certainly this will reduce health care costs and lead to better occupational health protection,” Naccarati-Chapkis said. “We often see that from a regulatory perspective, even though it will take several years to phase in over time, there will be a benefit certainly in the near future.”

The rule, she said, also brings asbestos back to the public eye for people who may encounter it in their work or life.

“It brings it back into conversation, for people who have concerns about asbestos and perhaps things they are doing in their home in terms of home renovations,” she said. “It gets back into the conversation that you should hire a trained asbestos professional.”

Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), called the rule “a big deal.”

“There have been multiple steps to get us here, but this is the most actionable. This is the one that will actually start to keep the material out of various products,” he said. “It will absolutely help to keep people safe. But there’s much more work to be done.

Campbell is looking ahead to the expected further review of other types of asbestos from the EPA.

“There will be more risk review being done by EPA of the different kinds. Exposure to asbestos is so dangerous, and it is more common than I think people realize,” he said. “It absolutely can feel like a glacial pace, particularly when we’re worried about people getting serious illnesses.”

Risks of asbestos

Campbell stressed that because of the old infrastructure and homes in Western Pennsylvania, the area needs to be careful about asbestos.

He mentioned that if you have an older home, you may find asbestos in a lot of insulation materials.

In the past, asbestos was good for insulation, which is why you may find it in attics and wrapped around pipes in older homes. If you see something that looks like white duct tape wrapped around pipes in a basement, it's usually asbestos used for insulation.

While asbestos is no longer used in insulation, it's important for homeowners and professionals to be cautious when doing any DIY repairs in an older building.

Campbell advised homeowners to protect themselves and get an asbestos inspection if they suspect its presence.

Mike Chicka, field supervisor and hazmat emergency coordinator at McCutcheon Enterprises, often conducts asbestos inspections for the company's clients. He noted that many people mistakenly believe that asbestos is completely banned.

Chicka stated that Pennsylvania has a lot of asbestos in operational power plants, substations, and steel mills. However, banning asbestos is a proactive measure to protect human health, preserve the environment, and promote safer alternatives.

Chicka mentioned that dealing with the existing asbestos in Pennsylvania homes and buildings will take a long time.

He believes that it will take decades to completely remove asbestos unless there's a renovation of every home.

Chicka thinks there should be a comprehensive ban on asbestos, but views the new rule as a positive step forward.

He emphasized that asbestos exposure is linked to serious health conditions, and it's important to protect public health by finding better alternatives to asbestos products.

Firefighters are at particular risk of asbestos exposure and must decontaminate their equipment after house fires to prevent exposure to themselves or family members.

Greg Russell, a government affairs representative for the International Association of Fire Fighters, highlighted the lack of decontamination facilities in old fire stations, which can lead to equipment being decontaminated in the same area where vehicles are parked and turnout gear is hung. Sterile decontamination rooms only became common after 2000.

Russell sees the new regulation's ban on chrysotile asbestos imports as significant because it reduces the chances of asbestos exposure in transportation accidents or fires.

According to Russell, eliminating the transport of asbestos is a step forward, but he believes it will take a couple of generations to see the benefits of the rule.

“(For) firefighters, the top cause of death is cancer related to their work. Firefighters experience double the rate of asbestos-related illness compared to the general public. Unless we stop using asbestos and safely remove it from buildings, we will continue to be exposed to it.”

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