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New EPA Asbestos Rule Falls Short of Full Ban

Health + Wellness
A new EPA rule on asbestos does not say anything about the asbestos currently in the environment. Bob Allen / Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a new rule on asbestos Wednesday that it says will "close the door" on new, unapproved uses. But public health advocates warn the rule could actually open the door to increased use of the carcinogenic fibrous material.


The Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) would require any company seeking to manufacture or import asbestos for any of 15 discontinued purposes would need to get the approval of the EPA. The regulation also includes a blanket rule requiring review for "any use of asbestos not previously identified," The New York Times reported.

"Prior to this new rule, EPA did not have the ability to prevent or restrict certain asbestos products from being reintroduced into the market," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement reported by The New York Times.

However, some public health advocates worry that the rule creates a mechanism by which companies can introduce new uses of asbestos as long as they get approval.

"This toothless regulation requires companies to seek approval from EPA to resume manufacturing, importing, and processing of asbestos for 15 obsolete uses. It does not ban these uses, but leaves the door open to their return to the marketplace. To think that any company would willingly attempt to resurrect these 15 obsolete asbestos uses is ludicrous. That EPA would enable it is unconscionable," Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization President Linda Reinstein said in a statement.

Reinstein also noted that the rule does not cover existing uses of asbestos, such as its use by the Chlor-Alkiki industry. It also does nothing about the asbestos left in schools, homes and offices from when the material was widely used as an insulator and flame retardant.

Assistant administrator at the EPA's chemical office Alexandra Dunn told CNN that the agency was still reviewing current uses of asbestos and might propose additional regulations or bans. A few days before the new rule was announced, Wheeler told the House Energy and Commerce Committee he would ban current uses, The New York Times reported, but health advocates like Reinstein argue that Wednesday's rule does not qualify.

Consumer protection groups have spent a decade lobbying for a law change that would empower the EPA to fully ban asbestos, which kills between 12,000 and 39,275 Americans each year. When an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act was finally passed in 2016, requiring the EPA to assess and regulate chemicals and enabling it to do so based exclusively on their health and environmental impacts, advocates hoped a ban was in sight.

Asbestos was added to the first 10 chemicals to be assessed under the amendment, but when the EPA first issued its proposed SNUR in June 2018, advocates were disappointed. Some employees voiced concerns the rule could open the door to new asbestos uses.

The final rule is stronger than the original proposal, The New York Times pointed out, because it requires approval for any new use, not just one of 15 former uses. Some public health advocates do think it is a good start.

"Most of the things coming out of the EPA these days aren't good," retired EPA employee and current Environmental Protection Network member Gary Timm told CNN, "but their asbestos work is so well documented." However, he also thought a full ban would be a logical next step.

Environmental Working Group legislative attorney Melanie Benesh also thought a full ban was in order.

"This new rule makes it more difficult for industry to resume some abandoned uses of asbestos, but that is a half step at best," Benesh said in a statement. "Administrator Wheeler should use the authority under the new Toxic Substances Control Act law and ban all uses of asbestos. That is the only way the public can trust industry will never again be able to use this dangerous material that has literally killed tens of thousands of Americans."

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If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.

That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

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