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Chemical Regulation

Is the end near for chrysotile asbestos?

US EPA confirms all 6 current uses pose unreasonable cancer risks to workers and consumers

by Britt E. Erickson
December 31, 2020


A chunk of chrysotile asbestos mineral.
Credit: Shutterstock
Chrysotile asbestos

Despite intense lobbying by the chemical industry, the US Environmental Protection Agency is set to address the cancer risks posed by all current uses of chrysotile asbestos. In a final assessment released Dec. 30, the agency identified unreasonable risks to workers and consumers who handle chlor-alkali diaphragms, gaskets, aftermarket automobile brakes, and other products that contain the carcinogenic substance.

The EPA only evaluated current uses of chrysotile asbestos, the form that is still imported into the US. The agency plans to evaluate risks from former uses, such as construction materials in older buildings, in a separate assessment. In that second part, the EPA will consider chrysotile and 5 other types of asbestos fibers. The agency expects to have a draft scoping document, which describes the uses that it will evaluate, by mid-2021 for that additional assessment.

The chlor-alkali industry is the sole recipient of imported chrysotile asbestos in raw form, according to the EPA. The industry uses it to construct semipermeable diaphragms that separate chlorine and sodium hydroxide. Asbestos is also incorporated into gaskets and automobile brake liners, which the US imports as finished products. The amount of asbestos imported into the US is unclear, but the EPA must start collecting such information under a Dec. 22 federal court ruling.

Asbestos is one of the first 10 high-priority chemicals that the EPA is evaluating under 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Many people call asbestos the poster child for why the law needed to be updated. Before TSCA was revised, the EPA spent more than a decade trying to ban existing uses of asbestos. The bar was too high, though, and despite mounds of evidence showing the dangers of the substance, the EPA was unable to justify banning it.

Under the amended law, the EPA has 1 year to propose actions to protect people from the risks it identified in the final assessment. Such action could include banning asbestos or limiting how it is used.



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