The public is currently Freaking The Fuck Out over asbestos. Yes, the group of cancer-causing minerals people thought were a problem of the past. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule back in June that seemingly went unnoticed until this week. It essentially states that any manufacturer or importer that wants to include asbestos in its products—from adhesives to pipeline wrap—needs to run it by the agency.
The EPA, now helmed by Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, is framing this as a way to hold potential producers to greater scrutiny and review. As Wheeler wrote on Twitter, “The facts is EPA is proposing a new rule that would allow for the restriction of asbestos manufacturing and processing of new uses of asbestos.” Sounds good, right?
Then again, this is the EPA under President Donald Trump. In this political climate, people have every reason to be worried. Especially since, if the EPA was really concerned about reducing asbestos, it could ban the substance outright, something it has never actually done.
By 1989, the agency had banned asbestos’ use from a number of products this new rule doesn’t cover, including commercial paper, wall patching compounds, pipe insulation, and spray-on coatings. Asbestos is still legal in cement pipe and roof coatings, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes it’s still used in some construction materials. By contrast, you’ll find full-on bans in dozens of countries, from Honduras to the entire European Union.
Mustafa Ali, the former environmental justice chair at the EPA who is now the senior vice president of climate and environmental justice at national civil rights group the Hip Hop Caucus, is concerned about what the new asbestos rule could mean given the Trump administration’s track record.
For one, former President Barack Obama tried to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act—the one avenue the EPA had tried to use (and failed) to completely ban asbestos in 1989—back in 2016 by signing a reform law. This opened the door to banning the chemical, and, at the time, Obama announced asbestos as one of the first chemicals to review under the new law before leaving office. He left office shortly after, so Trump’s team was left with the task of actually doing the review. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Trump administration later decided it would not review indirect exposure to these chemicals in water or air, according to Slate.
That includes asbestos in landfills that ends up airborne. And landfills are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color.
“If you’re having this stuff go into landfills, and then wind begins to blow, it could be passed throughout our communities,” Ali told Earther. “The way they currently approach it does not talk about that particular concern that I know communities have had.”
Then, there are the construction workers that have to deconstruct old buildings full of asbestos. Until the 1970s, the toxic material was largely used in construction, and any building built before 1975 poses a risk, according to the CDC. At the very least, construction workers need training on how to handle the stuff, Ali said—whether they are documented workers or not. Employers are supposed to train construction crews regarding asbestos exposure, per the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, but undocumented immigrants working in construction are already off the books.
And the public shouldn’t overlook asbestos’ use in products, either. Asbestos was recently discovered in crayons, for instance. Sure, as Slate noted, using asbestos in materials can lead to lawsuits, and companies have been shying away from it. But under the Trump administration, they might feel emboldened. And the administration’s demonstrated interest in speeding environmental review processes along which could lead to cutting important corners.
“There’s a fear there,” Ali said. “There’s a fear of transparency. If there are problems, will folks be aware of those problems, or will it be kind of swept under the rug?”
What the administration really needs to do is ban asbestos once and for all, Ali said. After all, lives are at stake: Between 1999 and 2015, the number of deaths related to mesothelioma (a tissue cancer that results from asbestos exposure) rose nearly 5 percent to 2,579, according to the CDC.
“We should be focused on making sure that no one is going to lose their life to something we have control over,” Ali told Earther. “We have control over if we’re going to ban asbestos or not.”
Earther has reached out to the EPA for comment and we will update this post if we hear back.