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Inviting new asbestos uses doesn’t make sense

August 22, 2018

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s changing approach to gauging the dangers of asbestos going forward has triggered some alarm bells with many health and environmental advocates and officials.

In essence, government regulators appeared on course to ban any new uses of asbestos in a movement toward phasing out asbestos from the environment. Now, however, under the Trump administration’s EPA, a rule change is being considered that could open the door to allow new uses of the substance.

As reporter Bishop Nash reported in Sunday’s The Herald-Dispatch, asbestos is a natural mineral fiber that has been documented as a carcinogen known to cause lung cancer; mesothelioma, which is cancer in the inner lining of the chest; and asbestosis, which is scarring in the lungs from inhaling airborne particulates. Between 1999 and 2013, 530 West Virginians died from mesothelioma and asbestosis, according to The Mesothelioma Center.

Asbestos was commonly used in many types of building materials and insulation until the 1970s for its heat resistance and durability. But new uses have been limited since the dangers carried by the substance became known.

However, that could change with the rule under consideration.

It’s important to note than any currently banned uses of asbestos will remain prohibited. But rather than continuing on the path toward banning new uses for asbestos, the EPA is proposing that potential new uses can be allowed after the agency reviews them with “risk evaluation, select studies, and use the best available science.”

Simply entertaining the thought of allowing new uses has sparked criticism. But concerns also have been raised about the EPA’s planned method of conducting such reviews of those new uses. In May 2018, the EPA published a document establishing the scientific approach it will take in evaluating these new uses. That approach will not include information from existing, or “legacy” uses of asbestos, despite the significant body of work around health risks stemming from those uses that could be insightful going forward.

Those questioning that change fear any analyses of new uses or products will be flawed if they don’t take into consideration that wealth of information from the past.

It’s not really clear why the EPA is in a sense inviting new uses of asbestos because there seems to be no controversy about the dangers stemming from the materials, which remain a threat in many households today.

Even with this possible window for new uses for asbestos, many are doubtful there will be few takers. West Virginia Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell and a physician, told The Herald-Dispatch that he couldn’t imagine anyone choosing to use the substance anymore. “There is no question it has a lot of health risks, so to lesson any requirements to make a building safe doesn’t seem to be in the interest of public health,” he said.

We agree with him. The EPA would better protect the public if it continued on a course toward banning any further use of asbestos — like dozens of nations already have — rather than pursuing its recent proposals.

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