In the latest deregulation effort by the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to allow new products to be manufactured with asbestos, a building material and known carcinogen which the architecture industry has largely shunned since the 1970s.
In a statement, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) decried the move, asking the EPA to not only revoke the proposed rule, but to completely eliminate asbestos in domestic settings: “The EPA should use their existing regulatory authority to establish a blanket ban on the use of asbestos.”
As first reported by Fast Company, the EPA proposed a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) on June 11 which would approve the use of asbestos in U.S. products on a case-by-case basis. Under the earlier Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the use of asbestos to make certain materials like plastics was tightly monitored and frequently reviewed. The EPA’s SNUR loosens those regulations in an effort to encourage manufacturers to create new uses for asbestos, increasing the potential of exposing workers to toxic chemicals.
Although asbestos was never banned outright in the U.S., the building industry has taken great pains to remove and limit exposure to the material, which was used as insulation for decades. But the U.S. still imports a significant amount of asbestos due to its wide range of applications in construction. Asbestos is used to make chlorine, which is essential for producing polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), a plastic material that can be found in virtually every U.S. home, most commonly in pipes.
Today, it’s estimated that asbestos is still responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Americans annually. An estimated 3,000 people in the U.S. each year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung cancer.
This raises the question of professional ethics. #architects are part of the construction industry. I’d like my professional organization @AIANational to weigh in on this proposed change. https://t.co/8vIuB5sQkt— Donna Sink, Architect (@DonnaSinkArch) August 7, 2018
Because the use of asbestos is so closely associated with the architecture industry, several architects called for the AIA to issue a statement on the EPA’s move. The AIA noted yesterday via Twitter that it was submitting public comment, and a spokesperson shared those public comments with Curbed. They include a strongly-worded condemnation of the rule:
Either by existing authority or through a significant new use rule, the EPA should review and eliminate the use of asbestos in domestic or imported materials. In 2017, the EPA established a final rule to codify the process to evaluate high priority chemicals, while “affirm[ing] EPA’s commitment to following the best available science, engaging stakeholders in the prioritization process, and recognizing the value of designating chemicals as low priority when appropriate.” Given the established health, safety and welfare risks that asbestos poses at all stages of its mining and usage, the AIA urges asbestos to be treated as a high priority chemical that is phased out of usage.
Over the last few decades, asbestos has been outlawed in more than 50 countries, which has drastically limited the number of places where it is produced. Up until last year, the large majority of asbestos production—and 95 percent of what is imported to the U.S.—occurred in Brazil. But early this year Brazil enacted strict rules to outlaw production, leaving Russia as the sole country to produce and distribute asbestos to the U.S.
Around the same time the EPA proposed the rule, a Russian company named Uralasbest—which operates the world’s largest asbestos mine in the Ural Mountains, where health problems have been well-documented—created a Facebook post celebrating the proposed new regulations.
The post shows photos of pallets of asbestos with a seal featuring the president and the words “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States,” according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which provided this translation of the Facebook text:
Donald is on our side! … He supported the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who stated that his agency would no longer deal with negative effects potentially derived from products containing asbestos. Donald Trump supported a specialist and called asbestos “100% safe after application.”
In his 18-month tenure at the EPA, Pruitt, who resigned last month, made a practice of deregulating materials and practices which had been previously deemed hazardous by the federal government due to health concerns. Just last week, the EPA announced a rollback on fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, which was widely condemned by public health and air quality experts.
Internal emails procured by the New York Times show that EPA staffers and scientists objected to the new rule, which was pushed through by top officials.
Trump himself has long been an advocate for asbestos, according to a Washington Post report: “In 2012, he tweeted that the World Trade Center would not have burned down had asbestos, which is known for fire-resistant properties, not been removed from the towers.”
Public comment on the asbestos SNUR closes August 10.