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EPA's Asbestos Guidelines Pose Serious Threat to Public Health, Says Agency's Own Inspector General

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EPA's Asbestos Guidelines Pose Serious Threat to Public Health, Says Agency's Own Inspector General

Once upon a time, asbestos, with its superior heat- and fire-resistant properties, was routinely used in building construction. But that was before awareness grew over the last 100 years about its connection to lung disease and several types of cancer, which can be triggered by only brief exposure to the material. Asbestos-laden materials fell from favor, as litigation ballooned into the costliest mass litigation in U.S. history and companies manufacturing asbestos productions went bankrupt in the wake of the lawsuits.

The EPA inspector general says that current methods of preventing asbestos release during demolition are inadequate.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Asbestos has now been banned in many countries, but not in the U.S. Although its use is less common now, asbestos still presents a danger, especially when the demolition of older buildings releases asbestos fibers into the air. According to the Environmental Working Group's Action Fund, asbestos still kills 12,000-15,000 people annually in the U.S.

Now the Office of the Inspector General of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report on Tuesday headlined "EPA Should Update Guidance to Address the Release of Potentially Harmful Quantities of Asbestos That Can Occur Under EPA’s Asbestos Demolition Standard." It says bluntly that the agency's guidelines for demolishing crumbling old buildings are woefully out of date and need to be revamped to protect public health and safety.

The EPA's Alternative Asbestos Control Method (AACM), established in 1973 as part of the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), allows demolition without removal of asbestos, requiring only that the asbestos-containing materials were well-soaked to prevent the fibers from becoming airborne during the demolition process. That, of course, creates runoff.

After testing that method of asbestos remediation, the inspector general's office found "The demolition of buildings that are structurally unsound and in imminent danger of collapse, and constructed with an asbestos-containing joint compound or Transite, can release significant amounts of asbestos into runoff wastewater. The amount of asbestos released into runoff wastewater can often exceed the legally reportable quantity for asbestos. The untreated discharge of runoff wastewater can contaminate the soil at the site or the water into which it is discharged. Under the EPA’s asbestos demolition standard, demolishing buildings that are structurally unsound and in imminent danger of collapse can release enough asbestos into the environment to pose a potential risk to human health."

The report made a number of recommendations including an evaluation of the potential health risk of asbestos fibers in untreated wastewater from demolitions; issuing a technical report available to the public; implementing timely actions based on the report and conducting regulatory reviews; and communicating with other EPA offices to discuss and share information.

However, the report notes that the EPA's acting assistant administrator for air and radiation disagreed with the conclusions, saying that the AACM tests were not equivalent to NESHAP demolitions. It goes on to say, "However, the agency agreed that its guidance in the area reviewed was 'dated and disparate' and proposed alternative corrective actions, which we accept. The actions include assembling a team of experienced asbestos experts to advise and assist the Office of Air and Radiation in producing an updated, consolidated guidance document which has practical application to the regulated community."

Despite the disagreement about the testing process, the report clearly points to the need for stronger action on protecting workers and the public from the dangers of asbestos in the environment.

"The inspector general’s report clearly shows that the EPA needs to revamp its guidance and regulations for how asbestos is handled for buildings that are near collapse," said Alex Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group's Asbestos Nation campaign. "We’ve known about the dangers of asbestos for decades, and many people mistakenly think it’s been banned. But Americans continue to be put in harm’s way from exposure to this deadly substance that is responsible for 12,000 to 15,000 deaths each year in the U.S. No other legal chemical is responsible for more deaths a year."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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