In December 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its report on the dangers that asbestos presents to the public. However, many claimed the report was flawed. It ignored legacy uses and focused on only one of the six different forms of asbestos. As a result, several organizations, led by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, took the EPA to court and forced the agency to expand its report.
The EPA has now shared the scope of its follow-up report. Part 2 of the agency’s asbestos risk evaluation should offer a more complete picture of the dangers the mineral presents. It will explore both legacy uses and the use of asbestiform minerals other than chrysotile.
Two things to know about the Part 2 asbestos risk report
The EPA’s two main focuses in Part 2 will be legacy uses and an expanded definition of asbestos. Here’s why these changes matter:
Unlike many other nations, the United States still permits a limited number of asbestos uses. As the EPA notes, these include:
- Asbestos diaphragms, largely for chlor-alkali production
- Brake blocks and aftermarket brakes and linings
Part 1 of the asbestos risk report explored the ongoing risks posed by these uses. However, they barely begin to cover the myriad ways manufacturers used asbestos in the past. For decades, up until the 1980s, asbestos was widely incorporated into building materials, insulation, heating coils, packaging, adhesives and more. While manufacturers may no longer make these products with asbestos, many of them continue to exist, especially in older buildings. These legacy uses can still expose people to asbestos. With Part 2 of its report, the EPA plans to explore many of these uses.
It is worth noting the definition of “legacy uses” that the EPA intends to review. According to the scope document, the EPA intends to review the uses it blocked with a 1989 partial ban. It intends to supplement that information with “a variety of other sources (including published literature, company websites, government publications, and commercial trade databases).” While this should lead to a far more comprehensive study than the Part 1 risk report, it may not yet be fully complete.
Non-chrysotile asbestos fibers
Second, the scope draft suggests the EPA will consider more than just chrysotile fibers. There are six types of asbestos fibers, but the EPA only considered one in the first part of its risk report. Part 2 will look at the dangers presented by the other five fibers. Perhaps more importantly, is the EPA’s statement that it will look at the risks presented by talc and vermiculite products contaminated by asbestos. As the scope draft states, from 1919 to 1990, the United States received 70 percent of all its vermiculite from an open mine pit near Libby, Montana. Non-chrysotile asbestos fibers often appeared in this vermiculite.
Similarly, talc mines may run into asbestos, and talc products may contain asbestos fibers. In fact, the FDA recently tested 52 talc products and found asbestos in nine of them. In response, the EPA intends to include talc products in its review. But while its review may include such products as crayons, putty and toy crime scene sets, the EPA does not intend to review talc-based cosmetics. This is because the law requiring the EPA to assess the dangers posed by asbestos excludes cosmetics from the definition of “chemical substances.”
By failing to review one of the most common and intimate uses of talc, the EPA may inadvertently minimize the risk talc products present the public.
A better picture, but not the whole picture
It’s well-known that asbestos is a carcinogen. Asbestos exposure can lead to diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. This is why the EPA included asbestos among the first ten substances to receive a risk review. It’s also why the incomplete nature of the EPA’s first report proved to be such a massive disappointment.
Now, the scope document suggests the EPA’s Part 2 review will provide a much better picture of the dangers the public face. As one safety advocate noted, it signals a giant step in the right direction. That said, the report will still have its blind spots. As much as it will be important to get the report’s findings, it will also be important to understand the materials the report does not cover.