Asbestos has long been the poster-child for the United States’ failure to adequately protect Americans from hazardous chemicals. Yet despite its notoriety, asbestos remains in use, exposing, not only workers but also their families, communities and in some cases, consumers to a known and deadly carcinogen. It’s been widely hoped – even expected – that the updated Toxics Substance Control Act (TSCA) would finally address this problem. But as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gets to work implementing the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act (LCSA), a battle is shaping up around asbestos.
Under TSCA, the
“system was so complex, it was so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos — a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that,”
said President Obama at the signing ceremony on June 22nd for the LCSA. But now the industry that is the biggest consumer of asbestos in the U.S. is pushing the EPA not to interfere with its use of asbestos.
As I wrote last week on The Pump Handle, the American Chemistry Council’s Chlorine Chemistry Division has submitted comments urging the EPA (as part of the agency’s rulemaking process under the LCSA) not to make asbestos a high priority for safety review and possible regulation. The industry group argues that asbestos is needed to produce chlorine and caustic soda in the chlor-alkali industry. It explains that because asbestos is used in enclosed, wet processes, “worker exposure risk is essentially eliminated.”
But public health advocates beg to differ. At a September 13th U.S. Congressional staff briefing organized by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, ADAO president and co-founder Linda Reinstein stressed the ongoing hazards that asbestos poses. “Asbestos is not a legacy issue and thing of the past. It remains a current high risk chemical,” Reinstein said ahead of the briefing. ADAO is the largest, independent nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to preventing asbestos exposure, eliminating asbestos-related diseases, and protecting asbestos victims’ civil rights through education, advocacy, and community initiatives.
At the briefing, ADAO urged the EPA to make asbestos one of the first ten chemicals it considers under the Lautenberg Act. They were joined there by representatives of the American Public Health Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and Environmental Information Association among other advocacy groups.
In an August 26th letter to the EPA, Boxer noted that the agency itself has called asbestos “one of the most hazardous substances to which humans are exposed.” OSHA, she also wrote, has emphasized that there “is no “safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber,” and “exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans.”
“It is critically important that EPA uses the new tools Congress has provided it to protect families from this hazardous substance,” wrote Tester in his letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. His state of Montana saw the devastation asbestos caused in the vermiculate mining town of Libby.
Senator Feinstein has also written to EPA Administrator McCarthy asking the agency to make asbestos a priority. Including asbestos “in the first group of ten high-risk chemicals,” wrote Feinstein, “would serve to reaffirm confidence in the EPA’s ability to protect Americans from dangerous chemicals.”
Chlor-Alkali industry uses 90 percent of U.S. asbestos – but alternatives exist
The chlor-alkali industry now uses about 90 percent of all the asbestos used in the U.S. Despite the industry’s assurances, this use is “dangerous for workers, their families and communities,” said Reinstein. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 400 metric tons of asbestos were used in the U.S. in 2014, nearly all by the chlor-alkali industry.
The asbestos, which can withstand exposure to harsh chemicals, is used to make diaphragms that separate chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen. As Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) explained back in 2008, these “asbestos diaphragms are made on-site to custom fit a plant’s equipment.” The industry says the wet process used prevents the asbestos from becoming airborne. While the chlor-alkali industry has long argued its need for asbestos, labor groups have said this – and other asbestos uses – should be banned due to the substance’s significant and well-established cancer risk.
As Reinstein explained, to get asbestos to the chlor-alkali industry, the mineral has to be mined, transported and stored. Using asbestos in the chor-alkai process means possible spills and clean up during regular use, maintenance and disposal, Reinstein said. And there are more than a dozen plants around the country that may be using this technology. (The industry says the exact details are proprietary.)
A chlorine industry publication on asbestos handling in the chlor-alkali industry suggests numerous opportunities for airborne asbestos exposure. For example, the asbestos can be shipped in bags that are wrapped in ways that “minimizes the likelihood of torn bags or loose material”(emphasis added.) It also includes instructions for inspecting equipment for dry or “friable asbestos,” that if visible would need to be cleaned up. There are also instructions for storage, that say “ideally” these areas should restricted and equipped with special air filters. The many precautions outlined in this publication make it abundantly evident that exposure to dry asbestos would not be an unlikely event.
Meanwhile, there are alternatives to these asbestos diaphragms, although some may cost more. One uses polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) fibers. These diaphragms reportedly can last longer than those based on asbestos. According to C&EN, some chlor-alkali plants began switching to these diaphragms in the 1990s. But the ACC’s Chlorine Chemistry Division told C&EN in 2008, , this alternate technology may not work well in all such chemical manufacturing facilities, hence its desire to continue using asbestos. (PTFE, which is based on perfluorinated chemistry, also has now well-known adverse environmental health impacts. )
Also notable are the inherent hazards of the chlor-alkali industry. For example, one of the U.S. leading chlorine chemical producers, Axiall, has a history fraught with injury-causing incidents. A December 2013 explosion and fire at its Westlake, Louisiana plant sent 18 people to area hospitals, including about a dozen motorists on nearby roads. In August of this year, a chlorine release at Axiall’s Natrium, West Virginia plant sent two workers to the hospital and caused the evacuation of nearby communities and the temporary closure of local roads. The same plant had a serious incident in December 2015 that injured 11 workers. Yet another was an explosion that occurred during a maintenance operation at the plant in September 2014. It resulted in the death of 50-year old Thomas Zahnow.
Overall, in the past 15 years, chlorine has been involved in hundreds of incidents, injuring thousands of workers. This is the industry that is now the United States’ largest user of asbestos. “It’s reprehensible that the U.S. allows this to go on,” Reinstein told The Pump Handle. “There is consensus and there is abundant science,” she said. And she added, “Safer substances are available and economically viable.”
Given the frequency of these catastrophic incidents, why should the public be confident that this industry’s handling of asbestos will be without incident?