Why Asbestos Is Still a Major Public Health Threat in the U.S.
Reports surfaced this month that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had proposed a significant new use rule (SNUR) for asbestos in June, requiring anyone who wanted to start or resume importing or manufacturing the carcinogenic mineral to first receive EPA approval.
Advocates and some EPA employees raised concerns that the SNUR could pave the way for expanded asbestos use in the U.S., while agency spokespeople maintained the new rule would help the agency better regulate the material that different studies estimate kills between 12,000 and 39,275 Americans a year. But beyond that dispute lay a broader question: Why isn't asbestos banned in the U.S. altogether?
Sixty-five countries currently ban the fibrous mineral that was once widely used as an insulator and flame retardant in buildings, but the U.S. still is not one of them.
"I think there is … a misunderstanding or a misperception that the asbestos problem has been taken care of, that asbestos is banned, which it isn't," Dr. Celeste Monforton, a public health expert who worked for the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during the Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations and now works at George Washington University, said in an interview.
"It's really something that the general public, and I even think lawmakers and policy makers, think is a problem of the past," she said.
The Fight for a Ban
Linda Reinstein is one ordinary American who learned the hard way that the threat of asbestos is very much current.
In 2003, her husband Alan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of internal organs, most often the lungs, that is linked to asbestos exposure.
"The more I searched for care and treatment options, the more angry I became because I knew that this was a man-made disaster," Reinstein said.
In 2004, she co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) with Doug Larkin, whose father-in-law was also sick, and joined a long-running fight against asbestos.
The health effects of asbestos exposure were documented over a century ago, but even as the public health consensus grew, more than 700,000 tons a year were being consumed in the U.S. by the 1960s and 70s, according to a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Because of regulations and lawsuits since the 1970s, its use fell to 14,600 tons by 2000 and 343 tons a year by 2015 for use by the chlor-alkali industry, the only U.S. industry that currently imports asbestos.
In 1973, 1975 and 1978, the EPA issued bans on specific uses of asbestos in spray-fireproofing, certain kinds of insulation and all spray applications, respectively. But its attempt to ban most uses of asbestos entirely in 1989 under section six of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was overturned by a court decision in 1991.
The judge ruled, in part, that the EPA had not adequately considered other regulatory options short of a ban and had not assessed the danger of possible replacements, The New York Times reported at the time.
Monforton said the ruling chilled further attempts by the EPA to issue a blanket ban.
"When an agency has an adverse decision from the courts on a regulation it took it many years to do, it is very obverse to doing that again," Monforton said.
Meanwhile, public health advocates like Reinstein began to work on changing the law to make it easier for the EPA to ban asbestos and other toxic chemicals. ADAO joined with 450 other non-profits in a 10-year push to amend TCSA. During the campaign, asbestos was used as the "poster child" for why the amendment was needed, Reinstein said.
The amendment, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, finally passed in 2016. It required the EPA to conduct safety reviews of chemicals currently on the market, as well as any new chemicals. It also empowered the agency to regulate chemicals based exclusively on their health and environmental risks and removed the need for it to choose the "least burdensome" regulations for industry, according to the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the law-firm-sponsored Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (MAAC).
When former President Barack Obama signed it into law, he even said, "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."
Advocates like Reinstein worked hard to get asbestos added to the list of the first 10 chemicals to be assessed under the new amendment. A full ban was finally on the horizon.
"Or so we thought," Reinstein said.
'Complete Missed Opportunity'
In 2016, less than five months after Obama's speech, Donald Trump was elected president.
"He has been the perfect storm for NGOs, environmentalists, public health because he's so close with industry," Reinstein said.
Former chemical industry lobbyists like Nancy Beck now had jobs at the EPA.
When the agency published the initial scoping documents for the first 10 chemicals to be assessed under the amendment in June 2017, it revealed that the assessment would not consider the health risk posed by the millions of tons of asbestos still left in homes and other buildings before its use was widely phased out of construction, which is the current greatest health risk asbestos poses to U.S. residents.
For Monforton, that decision represented a "complete missed opportunity."
"From a public health perspective, one of the important first steps is really having an understanding of the hazard and where it exists, because you can't make decisions about addressing the risk unless you know the magnitude of the problem," she said.
Monforton suspected that policy makers are afraid to conduct that analysis because the problem is so huge. Quantifying it would force them to either fix it or state outright that they weren't willing to do anything about it. She also thought that attitude was also behind pre-Trump failures to act.
"I cannot say that if we had a different administration that they would be opening up that whole can of worms," she said.
But if previous administrations have stuck their heads in the sand, Trump is different in that he praises asbestos with eyes wide open.
In 2012, for example, he tweeted that the use of asbestos would have prevented the World Trade Center from collapsing. His love for asbestos is so well known that a Russian asbestos company packed its product in plastic wrap stamped with his image.
Reinstein is worried the administration will continue ignoring asbestos already present in older buildings, continue granting an exception to the chlor-alkali industry to import it and use the SNUR to allow new uses while passing that limited action off as a full ban.
"If the EPA gets away with this, to me, the EPA's getting away with murder," she said.
Dr. Raja Flores, the Chairman for the Department of Thoracic Surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who has been treating mesothelioma for more than 20 years, agreed.
"If they spent one day with me in my clinic and they saw the patients, if they came with me into my operating room and saw the damage that this is doing on the inside, if they had any heart at all, they would ban it," he said.
The EPA has not actually done the limited risk evaluation that would lead to a decision to ban new uses of asbestos or not, but in the meantime Reinstein and others are also pursuing other avenues.
Bills to ban asbestos have been introduced to Congress since Democratic Senator Patty Murray first introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act in 2002, though none has been signed into law, according to MAAC.
The most recent attempt is the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, named for Reinstein's late husband, which was introduced by Oregon Democrats Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici in November 2017 and February of this year, respectively.
"Asbestos is dangerous and more than 50 countries around the world have banned it—for good reason," Bonamici said in an email. "Instead of joining them, the Trump administration is ignoring science and proposing to allow new uses of asbestos. That's unacceptable and takes us in the wrong direction. Congressional leaders must stand up and demand that the EPA follow its mission to protect public health and the environment. Lives are at stake."
Bonamici said she was working to build bipartisan support for the bill but so far had no Republican co-sponsors.
In the meantime, Flores and Monforton urged people to be aware of the possibility of asbestos exposure when pre-1970 buildings in their neighborhoods are disturbed due to construction or extreme weather and to make sure appropriate action has been taken to keep workers and residents safe.
"Whenever there's a construction site out there and you're being exposed to it, whether it's at work or at home or even on the street, you need to make sure that they've looked for asbestos," Flores said.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece did not attribute information about an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act to the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and did not note that the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (MAAC) is sponsored by a law firm.
Career EPA Staff Objected to #Trump Administration's #Asbestos Plan https://t.co/ue1zBcB6PK @ewg @foe_us— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1534026303.0
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Russia's Health Ministry has given regulatory approval for the world's first COVID-19 vaccine after less than two months of human testing, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday.
Putin's Daughter Among Vaccinated<p>The Russian leader also said that one of his daughters has already been inoculated and is feeling well.</p><p>"One of my daughters got vaccinated, so in this sense, she took part in the testing," Putin said.</p><p>After the first vaccine shot, his daughter experienced a slight fever, 38 degrees Celsius (100.4°F). Her temperature came down to just slightly above normal the next day. </p><p>"After the second shot, she had a slight fever again, and then everything was fine. She is feeling well and has a high antibody count," Putin said. </p><p>He didn't specify which of his two daughters, Maria or Katerina, received the vaccine.</p><p>Russian health authorities have said that medical workers, teachers and other risk groups will be the first to receive shots of the vaccine.</p>
Years of Work Reduced to Weeks<p>Russia is the first country to register a COVID-19 vaccine. As <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-coronavirus-vaccine-may-only-be-available-in-mid-2021/a-54362065" target="_blank">countries worldwide race to produce the first vaccine</a>, health experts warn that speed and national pride could compromise safety.</p><p>Scientists in Russia and abroad have questioned Moscow's decision to register the vaccine before Phase 3 trials that normally last for months and involve thousands of people, but Putin emphasized that the vaccine underwent the necessary trials and that vaccination will be voluntary.</p><p>Russian officials have said that large-scale production of the vaccine will begin in September, and mass vaccination may start as early as October.</p><p>Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippines-duterte-volunteers-to-be-putins-russian-coronavirus-vaccine-guinea-pig/a-54523030" target="_blank">lauded Russia's efforts in developing the vaccine</a> and said that the Philippines is ready to work with Moscow on vaccine trials, supply and production. Duterte volunteered to "be the first they can experiment on."</p><p>"I will tell President Putin that I have huge trust in your studies in combating COVID and I believe that the vaccine that you have produced is really good for humanity," Duterte said, adding that he thinks Russia's vaccine will be ready for the Philippines by December.</p>
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By Arkilaus Kladit
My name is Arkilaus Kladit. I'm from the Knasaimos-Tehit tribe in South Sorong Regency, West Papua Province, Indonesia. For decades my tribe has been fighting to protect our forests from outsiders who want to log it or clear it for palm oil. For my people, the forest is our mother and our best friend. Everything we need to survive comes from the forest: food, medicines, building materials, and there are many sacred sites in the forest.
Map of the Knasaimos traditional lands.
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By Farah Aqel
Overthinkers are people who are buried in their own obsessive thoughts. Imagine being in a large maze where each turn leads into an even deeper and knottier tangle of catastrophic, distressing events — that is what it feels like to them when they think about the issues that confront them.
Ruminating<p>According to the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796420/" target="_blank">ruminating</a> involves replaying a problem over and over in your mind. We ruminate by obsessing over our thoughts and thinking repetitively about various aspects of a past situation.</p><p>It usually involves regret, self-loathing and self-blaming. Rumination is associated with the development of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. </p><p>People prone to such patterns of thought may, for example, overanalyze every single detail of a relationship that breaks up. They often blame themselves for what has happened and are overcome with regret, with typical thoughts being: </p><p>- I should have been more patient and more supportive. </p><p>- I have lost the most perfect partner ever. </p><p>- No one will love me again.</p>
Worrying<p>Worrying is wanting to predict the future. It involves negative thoughts about things that might and might not happen.</p><p>- They'll not like me in the interview; they'll not give me the job. </p><p>- I haven't heard back from other employers. How long will I be unemployed?</p><p>These thoughts are energy-draining and distressing. They could happen to anyone under stress. But when you reach the point where your thoughts and worrying are preventing you from doing what you want to do — from living your life to the fullest — then you should take action.</p>
Catch Yourself Overthinking<p>Reuben Berger, a psychotherapist at the university hospital in the western German city of Bonn, recommends several practical steps that you could employ in your daily routine when you catch yourself worrying or ruminating.</p><p>One effective remedy, says Berger, is the <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9938" target="_blank">thought-stopping technique.</a></p><p>"When the negative thoughts come or ruminations start, you say to yourself: 'Stop!,'" he says, adding that it is more effective when you actually say the word out loud.</p><p>He even recommends having a rubber band around your wrist to ping against yourself while saying the word. Adding a visual component by imagining a stop sign also makes the technique more powerful, he says.</p><p>The main idea here is conditioning yourself to stop the loop of worrying (making future predictions) or rumination (obsessing over past events).</p><p>Berger says the technique could take up to two weeks to take effect and that it needs to be practiced every day. "Consistency is very important," he says. </p>
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts<p>Another way of dealing with negative thoughts often used in modern therapy is realizing that thoughts aren't facts, says Berger.</p><p>He says it is important when we think something to ask: Is that real? Did that really happen? What is the worst thing that could happen?</p><p>Flight anxiety is one example where untrue thoughts are accepted as facts. Although air travel is the safest way to get around, people suffering from fear of flying accept their thoughts and fears as reality, then act upon them by refusing to fly.</p>
Mindfulness<p>Berger also recommends the use of mindfulness techniques, in which attention is paid to experiences in the moment without judging them, as a way of reducing worrying.</p><p>"Mindfulness helps you to distance yourself from your thoughts and to be more present in the moment," he says.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432145/#R2" target="_blank">Several studies</a> have shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on reducing stress-related behaviors such as rumination and worrying, as focusing on the moment makes anxiety about other problems impossible.</p><p>Mindfulness can be practiced during routine activities by paying attention to your body and your surroundings. For instance, when you leave for work in the morning, you can focus on sensing the breeze, listen attentively to birds, feel the gravel under your feet and monitor your breath. </p>
Trick Your Brain Into Happiness<p>People plagued by obsessive thoughts do not always choose healthy ways like mindfulness to distract from them, however.</p><p> Dr. Edward Selby, a psychologist at Florida state university, has shown in a study that people try to avoid rumination by engaging in a range of uncontrolled behaviors, such as binge eating and substance abuse.</p><p>But he says that a much better way to overcome such distress is by distraction and shifting attention away from problems that are obsessing us.</p><p>There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, he says, and people should choose the one that works best for them. Here are some examples:</p><p>- Listen to music</p><p>- Read a book</p><p>- Take a hot shower</p><p>- Dance or exercise </p><p>- Talk to a friend (not about the problem)</p><p>- Watch a movie</p><p>- Mindfulness meditation</p>
Changing the Perception of Events<p>The way people perceive a situation largely influences their emotions and behavior. It is not the situation itself that determines how they feel, but rather the way they interpret it.</p><p>Reframing negative thoughts can lead to positive emotions and, subsequently, healthier behaviors — including a reduction in damaging overthinking and worrying.</p><p>Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is currently a gold standard in psychotherapy. CBT aims to change the way people think and act. It largely involves challenging unhelpful beliefs or attitudes such as overgeneralization — thinking "I always fail at public speaking" when you have had one bad experience in front of an audience, for example — or "catastrophization," i.e., imagining the worst possible outcome to a situation. </p><p>A psychotherapist can teach people how to implement such thought-changing techniques into their lives. Techniques vary depending on their issues and goals.</p>
Solutions Are at Hand<p>Try to find ways of avoiding worrying, rumination and overthinking that make you feel most comfortable.</p><p>Incorporating any routine in your life when you're stressed isn't an easy task, but you can do it! If you feel overwhelmed, you can always seek professional help. </p><p><em>If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, <a href="https://www.befrienders.org/" target="_blank">at this website.</a></em></p>
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