This month, the Trump administration proposed relaxing restrictions on asbestos, the cancer-causing building material banned in other countries — a move that was opposed by members of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the change.
It will release a new rule outlining 15 uses for asbestos for which manufacturers need to get approval from the EPA. Previously, the agency required approval for all uses. Some members of the EPA oppose the new plan, worrying that this it encourage companies to use asbestos in ways that aren’t on the list.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was discovered to be incredibly effective for building insulation and fireproofing in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1920s, many U.S. buildings and products contained it — and people who mined and worked around the material were developing mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. It was discovered that the mineral’s hairlike fibers, once inhaled, cause damage to the lungs that leads to malignancy.
By the 1980s, asbestos was banned outright by many countries, although the U.S. continued to allow its use in limited cases. Many older buildings, including schools and government buildings, underwent costly asbestos removal. About 15,000 people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year, and 850,000 people have filed lawsuits.
When is asbestos use allowed?
President Trump, a longtime real-estate developer, has voiced his support for asbestos and once called it “100 percent safe, once applied.” That goes back to his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback,” in which he said that the controversy was a conspiracy to benefit mafia-controlled asbestos-removal companies.
In June, Scott Pruitt’s EPA announced it would no longer consider the health risks and impacts of asbestos already in the environment when evaluating the dangers associated with it. The agency also announced it would consider new uses of asbestos on a case-by-case basis, according to “risk evaluation, select studies, and use the best available science.”
Although current banned uses will remain banned, opponents say the new policy could conceivably allow new asbestos-containing products to sneak onto the market.
Asbestos was previously used in thousands of ways, from pipes to ceiling coatings to brake pads — even artificial Christmas snow. Now its use is greatly restricted, but the U.S. still allows it in certain construction materials, auto products and industrial-clothing applications.
One country which is celebrating the relaxation of asbestos restrictions: Russia, which is the world’s largest producer of asbestos.
In June, the Russian factory Uralasbest posted a photo to Facebook showing pallets of asbestos stamped with President Trump’s face, captioned “Donald is on our side!”