The EPA will issue a draft report on asbestos this summer, detailing its plans for a forthcoming risk evaluation on older uses of the carcinogen.
This somewhat nebulous timeframe was announced Feb. 3 at a public webinar about an earlier risk evaluation that only looked at the dangers posed by current uses for asbestos.
According to the agency, the draft report will be released in the middle of this year and will focus on the scope of the agency’s next risk evaluation, following its December 2020 report.
That risk evaluation report — which was titled Part 1 to clarify that another review would be in the offing — covered only one type of asbestos: chrysotile. This is because chrysotile is the only form of asbestos still imported and used in the U.S. today.
The report looked at existing uses of asbestos and concluded that chrysotile poses an unreasonable risk to human health in all consumer uses and in six types of commercial use: chlor-alkali diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets. The agency determined that chrysotile poses no unreasonable risk to the environment.
The next risk evaluation — Part 2 — will address legacy uses and the disposal of all types of asbestos: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite, agency officials said. This summer’s draft document on the scope of the evaluation will be the starting point for this multi-year process, followed by a final scope document, a draft risk evaluation and — after a public comment period — a final risk evaluation.
The Clock Is Ticking
Both risk evaluations are intended to inform further agency regulation of asbestos, already a heavily regulated product. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), agency officials have one year to issue a proposed rule on the risks posed by asbestos, and then another year before issuing a final rule, according to agency officials.
The agency didn’t originally plan on a Part 2 report but was ordered to by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2019, in response to a lawsuit filed by activists over its interpretation of TSCA. The court concluded that “EPA’s exclusion of legacy uses and associated disposals [for asbestos] contradicts TSCA’s plain language.”
A coalition of activists is threatening another lawsuit over the agency’s handling of the risk evaluation, arguing that changes to TSCA in 2016 mandated that the agency complete a risk evaluation on all forms of asbestos last June.
For the public webinar, agency officials gave a brief summary of the findings in the Part 1 report before addressing its plans for the next one. Alie Muneer — a scientist in the Existing Chemicals Risk Management Division of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention — stressed that the agency is “committed to developing risk management actions for chemicals in a way that is transparent and includes meaningful outreach with stakeholders and affected parties.”
The bulk of the hour-long meeting was given over to public comments on the Part 1 report, though multiple commenters also addressed the agency’s plans for the Part 2 report, as well. Nine speakers took turns either excoriating the agency or praising it. In some cases, speakers did both.
Some commenters were ultra-specific, such as Eric Bruckner of California’s North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District, who asked about the regulatory framework planned for asbestos in car brakes.
Others were more generalized, such as Linda Reinstein’s remarks on behalf of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which she heads. She contended that the Part 1 “evaluation is dangerously flawed and incomplete.” She argued that waiting for a separate Part 2 report on legacy asbestos uses is “unreasonable” and “will lead to preventable deaths.” She pressed the agency to ban all forms of the cancer-causing substance.
In all cases, agency officials did not respond to the comments, which is typical of such hearings. However, they noted that the comments would be recorded for later consideration.
Reinstein’s position was echoed by Brent Kynoch, the managing director of the Environmental Information Association. He applauded the agency for issuing the Part 1 report but criticized numerous aspects of it.
“EPA, you took the easy way out in Part 1,” he said. “You failed to respond to the ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court regarding legacy asbestos. You did not consider [different] fiber types under chrysotile. You only looked at mortality rates related to asbestos, instead of looking at cancer. ... Now, do the hard work in Part 2. You owe that to everyone that looks to you for regulations and guidance.”
Some speakers were more complimentary. Robyn Brooks of the Chlorine Institute — a trade association for chlor-alkali producers — commended the agency for “recognizing that the use of respirators and other protective measures [for people working with asbestos-based products] mitigates the exposure risk to acceptable levels.” She noted its use in diaphragms by association members and emphasized industry-initiated safety measures.
Julie Goodman, an epidemiologist with the consulting firm Gradient was more critical of the report. She argued that the agency’s Part 1 risk assessment “airs on the side of being conservative” with its data selection.
“There is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates shorter chrysotile fibers are cleared from the lungs more efficiently than longer fibers,” she contended, arguing that the agency should have made such distinctions part of its report.
“This risk evaluation is based on several conservative assumptions, some of which the evidence does not support,” Goodman argued.