EPA Asbestos Review May Trigger Probe of Chlorine Industry

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By Pat Rizzuto

Sept. 12 — Chlorine manufacturers, which currently are the largest U.S. importers of asbestos, could have their use of the mineral reviewed soon if the Environmental Protection Agency selects asbestos as one of the first 10 substances it will analyze under the amended chemicals law.

Chlorine and caustic soda are manufactured by the chlor-alkali industry, which uses asbestos for one of three processes that companies can use to produce both chemicals. The U.S. Geological Survey has listed the chlor-alkali industry as the primary importer of asbestos in each annual mineral commodity summary the service has published since 2013. The industry’s use accounted for 90 percent of the 358 tons of asbestos imported into the country in 2015, the geologic survey said in its 2016 summary.

The chlor-alkali industry’s use of asbestos should be evaluated by the EPA as part of an assessment of the risks posed by the mineral, Linda Reinstein, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 9.

Top 10 Substances?

All domestic uses of asbestos should be reviewed by the EPA, which must make the mineral one of the first 10 chemicals it evaluates under the recently amended Toxic Substances Control Act, Scott Faber, vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 12.

“Few chemicals are as dangerous as asbestos; there is no question it poses a health risk,” Faber said.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (Pub. L. No. 114-182), which amended TSCA on June 22, gave the agency new authorities to oversee the safety of chemicals, he said.

“Asbestos is the substance by which this new law will be judged,” Faber said.

As changes to TSCA were debated for years, members of Congress were among the many individuals who voiced frustration about provisions of the original TSCA that prompted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to overturn the EPA’s 1989 ban of many uses of asbestos The asbestos organization and Environmental Working Group have been joined by automotive brake manufacturers, some Democratic senators, and other environmental health groups in urging the EPA to examine the risks of asbestos as one of the first 10 chemicals it reviews under the Lautenberg Act.

By December the EPA must be examining the risks posed by 10 chemicals under the law. Those 10 chemicals must be selected from the agency’s 2014 “Work Plan” list of approximately 90 substances the agency already announced it would evaluate prior to the Lautenberg Act becoming law.

“Work plan substances for which EPA has had significant work underway are logical candidates for the first 10 substances under review,” the American Chemistry Council told Bloomberg BNA in a Sept. 9 e-mail.

The EPA has not begun to work on asbestos.

If the agency does not make the asbestos evaluation part of the first 10 chemicals, the next administration could decide whether and when it would be reviewed.

Faber declined to comment as to whether the uncertainty of which administration will be elected is a reason his group and others are pushing now for asbestos to be one of the first 10 chemicals the EPA evaluates.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, however, has testified before Congress about asbestos’ benefits.

During a July 21, 2005, hearing before a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee about U.S. financial involvement in the renovation of the U.N.'s headquarters, Trump testified: “there’s a whole debate about asbestos. I mean, a lot of people could say that if the World Trade Center had asbestos, it wouldn’t have burned down. It wouldn’t have melted, okay? A lot of people think asbestos... a lot of people in my industry think asbestos is the greatest fire-proofing material ever made.”

Workers, Community Protected: Trade Association

If the agency were to evaluate asbestos, it will find that chlor-alkali companies already take extensive actions to prevent workers and the public from exposure, the American Chemistry Council said.

The agency already had reached that conclusion in 1989 when it restricted many uses of asbestos, the council’s Chlorine Chemistry Division told the EPA in comments it filed Aug. 24 about a risk evaluation rule the agency must develop.

When EPA excluded the chlor-alkali industry from its 1989 asbestos ban the agency said: “exposure to asbestos during the life cycle of this product is limited because the product is generally fabricated on site, used saturated with isolation and disposed of while wet. Asbestos is not prone to be released into the ambient air during states after product fabrication.”

“The industry’s practices have continued to improve since 1989 as handling and monitoring technology has evolved,” the chemistry council told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 9.

The council provided a list of actions companies take to prevent exposures beginning from the receipt of dry asbestos shipments, through the wet process used to transform that asbestos into a diaphragm that is designed to prevent dangerous chemical reactions while chlorine and caustic soda are manufactured, until the used wet diaphragm is disassembled in a closed process and made into non-reusable parts for disposal.

“Because of this continuous wet environment, the use of asbestos in the chlor-alkali industry is very different than historical processes associated with airborne release of asbestos fibers,” the chemistry council said.

Reinstein said chlor-alkali manufacturers may successfully prevent exposures while they use the asbestos, but that doesn’t negate the need for the EPA to assess the risks posed by the mineral’s life cycle.

Scope of Assessment Would Be Subsequent Decision

A life cycle assessment would consider the risks of mining the mineral even though that is done abroad, she said.

The agency also should review domestic risks from transporting it to companies that use it, from spills and accidents that could occur, from manufacturing processes that use asbestos, from the use of asbestos-containing products, and from the disposal of asbestos and the products it is used to make, Reinstein said.

Her perspective on issues the EPA should consider if it evaluates the risks of asbestos points to a step the agency would have to take after it declares a chemical to be a high priority subject to risk evaluation.

Within six months of declaring a chemical to be a high priority, the agency must publish a scope with information such as the hazards, exposures, conditions of use, and the potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations it plans to evaluate.

As the EPA determines the scope of any evaluation of asbestos, it should take into account that chlor-alkali companies have “essentially eliminated” potential exposures, the American Chemistry Council’s Chlorine Chemistry Division wrote in comments it submitted to the agency Aug. 24 about a risk evaluation rule the EPA is developing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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