Environmental Protection Agency is now allowing asbestos back into US manufacturing

Posted: 7th Aug 18 12:30 PM

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has enacted a Significant New Use Rule allowing companies to use new asbestos-containing products on a case-by-case basis.

Asbestos in UK industry

One of the most dangerous industry-related carcinogens is now legally allowed back into US manufacturing under a new rule given by the EPA.

The EPA has authorised a “SNUR” – a Significant New Use Rule – which allows new products containing asbestos to be created on a case-by-case basis.

According to environmental advocates, this new rule gives chemical and industrial companies the upper hand in creating new uses for such harmful products across the United States. In May, the EPA released a report detailing its new framework for evaluating risk of its top prioritised substances. The report states that the agency will no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground or water in risk assessments, including asbestos.

Jan Garvey, from the National Asbestos Helpline, based in the UK, said: “This is a step backwards for the US. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and causes many thousands of deaths every year of hard working men and women around the world.”

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral which has been regularly used from the end of the 19th century until the late 1990s in both manufacturing and construction.

Due to its versatile properties, such as its fire resistance and the fact that it is the only known mineral that can be woven into a thread, it had been known as the “magic mineral”.

Asbestos has since been found to be a hazardous substance and needs to be handled with extreme care. When asbestos is disturbed it releases fibres which can present serious health risks when inhaled. The diseases caused by the inhalation of asbestos can be fatal.

People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or even their homes. When asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation in the lung tissue, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.

What health risks does asbestos pose?

It is estimated that an average of 13 people a day in the UK die from conditions caused by previous exposure to asbestos – more than double the number of people who die on the roads.

The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die every year as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos, and notes that “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis”. In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive puts the number of asbestos-related deaths at around 5,000 deaths per year.

The first health fears associated with asbestos were raised at the end of the 19th century. Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that causes shortness of breath, severe coughing and other damage to the lung was described in medical writing in the 1920s.

Inhalation of the deadly fibres can cause numerous health problems, such as pleural thickening, asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancers, all of which currently have no cure.

By the mid-1950s, when the first study of asbestos-related lung cancer was published, the link between asbestos and mesothelioma was established.

Those unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the asbestos-related disease of mesothelioma or asbestos related lung cancer are often not given much time to live after diagnosis. The average survival period is 2 years after diagnosis.

The long-term consequences of asbestos inhalation can be deadly as it can take between 10 and 50 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to surface.

“There is absolutely no doubt that all kinds of asbestos can give rise to asbestosis,” says Paul Cullinan, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Respiratory Disease at the National Heart and Lung Institute of the Imperial College London. “It’s probably the case that white asbestos is less toxic in respect to mesothelioma than amphiboles. The industry tries to argue that you can take precautions so that white asbestos can be used safely, but in practice, in the real world, that is not what is going to happen.”

Asbestos is one of the few substances that once inhaled cannot be dissolved of rejected by the body’s own natural defence system. Hence pleural plaques or traces of asbestos begin identified on scans years after a person has been exposed.

There is a firm scientific consensus that any type of asbestos is toxic.

What are the modern asbestos regulations?

Through the 1970s, asbestos was used to fireproof roofing and flooring, for heat insulation, and for a variety of other purposes. The material was used in fire-check partitioning and doors on North Sea oil production platforms and rigs.

During the mid-to-late 1980s, public health concern focused on potential asbestos fibre exposures of building occupants and workers in buildings with asbestos-containing building materials and their risks of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma. As a consequence, the Health Effects Institute of Cambridge, America, formed a panel to evaluate the lifetime cancer risk of general building occupants as well as service workers.

In the United Kingdom, blue and brown asbestos materials were banned completely in 1985, while the import, sale and second hand use of white asbestos was outlawed in 1999. The 2012 Control of Asbestos Regulations states that owners of non-domestic buildings (e.g. factories and offices) have a ‘duty to manage’ asbestos on the premises by making themselves aware of its presence and ensuring the material does not deteriorate, removing it if necessary. Employers whose operatives may come into contact with asbestos must also provide annual asbestos training to their workers.

Further reading

What is asbestos?

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Emotional needs of people exposed to asbestos revealed by study

Trump’s face put on asbestos products in Russia