The US does not have adequate information on importation and use of asbestos to assess the health risks of the carcinogenic substance, a federal court ruled Dec. 22. The decision is a win for states and public health groups, which sued the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 for failing to collect such information under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
The EPA is currently evaluating the risks of asbestos to the environment and human health under 2016 revisions to TSCA. The substance is one of the first 10 high-priority chemicals the agency is assessing under the updated law.
The ruling by the US District Court for the Northern District of California requires the EPA to collect information on asbestos imports and use under the agency’s Chemical Data Reporting rule. The EPA previously told chemical manufacturers that asbestos imports were exempt from the rule because asbestos is a naturally occurring chemical substance.
“EPA cannot do its job to protect the public unless it has basic information on how much asbestos is entering the United States and where it goes once it is here,” Linda Reinstein, cofounder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, says in a statement. The group has been pushing the EPA to ban asbestos for many years and is one of the plaintiffs in the court case. “It is clear that without an asbestos ban, both raw asbestos and asbestos-contaminated products enter our country without responsibility or accountability,” Reinstein says.
Asbestos is imported into the US in the form of raw chrysotile fibers. The fibers are used exclusively by the chlor-alkali industry in semipermeable diaphragms that separate chlorine from sodium hydroxide. The EPA estimates that the US imported 750 metric tons of the substance in 2018, but environmental groups have questioned that figure.
In its draft assessment of asbestos released in March 2020, the EPA found unreasonable risks to workers in the chlor-alkali industry. The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, disputes that finding, claiming that personal protective equipment and other safety protocols sufficiently protect chlor-alkali workers from exposure to asbestos.
The EPA is expected to complete its assessment of the risks posed by current uses of asbestos in the next couple of days—before the end of this year. It will address the risks posed by former uses, such as construction materials found in older buildings, sometime in the future.