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By Sam Pearson
The EPA took an early step June 22 to lay out how it plans to evaluate the risk of asbestos, publishing an initial document on how it will review information on the substance.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s scoping document sets out how it plans to evaluate asbestos under the new chemical safety law. The risk evaluation strategies, or “scoping documents,” explain how EPA will determine if asbestos poses an unreasonable risk to people or the environment, actions that could affect companies that use asbestos, such as Occidental Chemical Co., Axiall Corp. and Olin Corp.
The Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which updated the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, required EPA to publish the document within a year of its enactment.
The agency acknowledged it may change its risk-evaluation strategy in the next step of the process, problem formulation, including by removing uses it will evaluate. At the same time, EPA said it will not add new conditions of use to examine if it hasn’t yet presented it.
What won’t be examined is so-called “legacy uses” of asbestos, such as building materials that remain in place but are no longer produced for new construction, the document said, as the agency wants to focus on “uses for which manufacture, processing or distribution is intended, known to be occurring, or reasonably foreseen.”
The document will impact how EPA conducts its future risk evaluation of asbestos, which could impact users of the substance if it requires changes in how they operate. While asbestos is no longer mined in the United States, imported asbestos is contained in some brake pads and other products and is used in chloralkali plants operated by companies like Occidental Chemical Co., Axiall Corp. and Olin Corp.
Asbestos is a cancer-causing substance with a long history of attention from the agency.
While the EPA document acknowledged the chloralkali industry’s asbestos use, it also noted exposure could be excluded on a “case-by-case basis” in situations such as “uses that occur in a closed system that effectively precludes exposure.”
The document came on the one-year anniversary of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which updated the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Central to the legislation was the legacy of asbestos, which EPA failed to regulate under the old law when a federal court blocked its regulation on the substance.
Asbestos’ well-known connection to causing lung cancer, mesothelioma and other respiratory ailments combined with the EPA’s inability in 1989 to craft a rule—capable of withstanding court scrutiny—restricting uses of the mineral made asbestos the poster child spurring calls to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act.
EPA also said it would evaluate research tying asbestos to cancer of the larynx and ovary and non-cancer hazards such as respiratory illnesses and immunotoxicity.
EPA noted the statutory deadline may have rushed development of the document, calling it “not as refined or specified as future scope documents are anticipated to be.”
The asbestos evaluation is likely to focus on worker safety impacts because workers face the highest exposure to the substance, the EPA said. Under the law, workers can be considered a “relevant potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulation” in the evaluation.
In the U.S., many specific existing uses have been banned, such as in pipe insulation, spray-on materials and other products.
Yet other uses of asbestos continue, for example in imported brake pads. The Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association has told EPA it is concerned about auto repair mechanics being exposed to asbestos through imported brake pads.
Cindy Sebrell, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email to Bloomberg BNA June 22 the organization is still reviewing the document.
Few manufacturers that make chlorine and caustic soda using the “chlor-alkali process” constitute the largest users of asbestos, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2017 Mineral Commodity summary. http://src.bna.com/p2I They imported 340 tons in 2016, USGS said.
These companies, EPA said, include the Olin Corp. and Axiall Corp.. The Occidental Chemical Co. also uses the chloralkali process.
An attempt to examine the risk of asbestos in the chloralkali industry would be required prior to proposing a halt to the substance’s use, but companies are likely to balk at being forced to modify plant operations with alternative materials.
Olin Corp. did not respond to a request for comment. Axiall Corp. could not be reached for comment. Eric Moses, a spokesman for Occidental, referred questions to industry trade organizations.
Industry and public health organizations said they were still reviewing the document.
American Chemistry Council spokesman Jon Corley said in a statement June 22 the group “will review and analyze the scoping documents to ensure that they are based on best available, verified information as well as focused on the conditions of use that present the greatest potential risks so that the risk evaluations are protective and practical.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a co-sponsor of the new chemical safety legislation, said in a statement June 22 the document’s release came at a “critical point for the new law.”
“There is a lot at stake and we must ensure that EPA acts as Congress intended—to prioritize safety, especially for pregnant women, infants, the elderly and chemical industry workers,” Udall said.
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The scoping document is available at http://src.bna.com/p7T.
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