The Environmental Protection Agency has a proposal on the drawing board that critics say could expand the use of asbestos — an industrial material known to cause cancer and lung disease. Since the health hazards of asbestos emerged 40 years ago, use of the material has dropped dramatically across the globe. By 2013, more than 60 countries had implemented partial or full bans of asbestos.

Critics and news reports say the proposed rule would open the door for asbestos to make a comeback. Before becoming president, Donald Trump voiced his support for asbestos, suggesting the fire retardant could have prevented the World Trade Center from collapsing during 9/11.

People think asbestos is banned in the U.S., but they’re wrong, Thomas Burke, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health told Science magazine.

Today, you can find asbestos in brake liners, potting soilchlorine, factories and firefighters’ clothing. Meanwhile, homeowners and communities continue to deal with the fallout of using asbestos as clothing and building material for thousands of years, most recently as a flame retardant, wall insulation and liner for cement pipes.

“Unfortunately, we all have asbestos fibers in our lungs — whether it’s from the subway stations of New York, to the brakes on cars to background exposure from the historical use in insulation of pipes in our grade schools,” said Burke, who chairs Health Risk and Society program at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “These asbestos fibers are tiny, and they get in your lungs. They’re like needles, and they stick there forever.”

The EPA has proposed a new regulation — called a significant new use rule — for certain uses of asbestos. If the rule is certified, here are the products where asbestos could resurface.

  • Adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof coatings
  • Arc chutes
  • Beater-add gaskets
  • Extruded sealant tape and other tape
  • Filler for acetylene cylinders
  • High-grade electrical paper
  • Millboard
  • Missile liner
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Reinforced plastics
  • Roofing felt
  • Separators in fuel cells and batteries
  • Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
  • And any other building material (other than cement).

Most people don’t encounter enough asbestos to suffer health problems, but high exposure has been linked to lung cancer, lung scarring and tumors in the linings of internal organs, a cancer known as mesothelioma.

The EPA began outlawing asbestos for building materials in 1975, starting with pipe insulation. By 1989, the agency had issued a final rule for a near-total ban of the mineral, under the authority of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Yet in 1991, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the EPA’s rule, leaving the door open for the importing and manufacturing of asbestos-containing products.

The rule calls on manufacturers to alert the EPA if they try to use asbestos in an array of products, including adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof coatings; separators in fuel cells and batteries; vinyl-asbestos floor tile; and any other building material (other than cement).

Will the proposed rule trigger an increase in asbestos use?

No one will know until the rule is confirmed, and the EPA begins reviewing new applications for the chemical.

Source: Science magazine