For many years, Americans have accepted and valued the role that science can play in advancing human life. The nation’s scientists were the first to send a man to the moon, develop personal computers, and break countless technological barriers. Good science can also protect the environment and improve human health.
So, why would anyone want to make use of second-rate science? Why would anyone fail to use all the data available to them to find real solutions to real problems? These are just two of the questions that lurk behind one science advisory committee’s recent rebuke of the EPA’s draft asbestos risk report.
Here’s why the report and its recent rebuke both matter
The EPA recently published a draft asbestos risk evaluation meant to explore the dangers that the carcinogenic mineral presents to public health. This report matters because, as some chemical safety advocates note, it will help shape government policy. A more urgent message could prompt a more robust response. It could lead to stronger rules and regulations.
Instead, the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC) that was asked to provide a peer review of the report claimed that it was “not considered adequate.” As a result, the committee said it had “low confidence” in the report’s conclusions. In other words, one might claim the report “is fundamentally flawed and understates the serious risks of asbestos to public health.” At least, that was the interpretation provided by the president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).
Downplaying the risks could lead to softer regulation and more negative health outcomes. So, why would SACC and the ADAO claim the report was faulty? There were several reasons:
- Most notably, the report failed to consider the dangers of “legacy” asbestos. Instead, it focused solely on current uses instead of the tons of material already baked into the American environment. But, as we know from the tragic tales of one Philadelphia teacher and other similar victims, legacy asbestos presents a genuine problem.
- The report ignored most forms of asbestos. Asbestos isn’t a single mineral. It’s a term used to describe a group of several similar and related minerals. But the EPA’s report focused on just one of those minerals. Accordingly, its narrow focus on chrysotile means that it completely fails to account for all other forms of asbestos and asbestos-like materials.
- The report did not address the risks tied to environmental exposure.
- The data focused on a narrow group of people. It addressed only those who worked in several targeted industries, ignoring the risks presented to everyone else.
- The report did not address the risks presented by asbestos fragments in talcum products. Despite the tremendous attention paid to the recent revelation, Johnson & Johnson knew its baby powder might contain asbestos.
The SACC and ADAO argue these are serious oversights. Anyone of them could seriously downplay the risks associated with asbestos exposure. Anyone of them could lead to flawed findings and flawed legislation. But there’s not just one oversight; there are several.
Exceptions to science
While the EPA’s report may be flawed due to its oversights, there’s perhaps an even greater flaw in the U.S. response to asbestos. While most other developed nations have now banned the substance outright, the United States keeps carving out exceptions for different forms of use.
Nearly 40,000 Americans die every year from mesothelioma and other cancers linked to asbestos, and scientists are still working to ensure the risks of asbestos are fully recognized.