The United States designed its chemical regulation system to keep businesses humming with little interference. That decision had health repercussions for ordinary Americans, who are left to carry the burden.
Days after ProPublica detailed dangerous working conditions at a chlorine plant that used asbestos until it closed last year, public health advocates and two U.S. lawmakers are renewing calls for Congress to ban the carcinogen.
“American workers are dying from asbestos. It is way past time to end its use,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon. “This ProPublica report confirms our worst fears: workers dealing with asbestos are often left vulnerable to this deadly, dangerous substance.”
Merkley and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., are sponsoring the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, which would permanently ban the importing and use of asbestos. The proposed legislation is named after Alan Reinstein, who died in 2006 from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. Alan’s wife, Linda, co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, one of the leading nonprofits that has advocated for protecting the public from the dangers of asbestos.
The lack of a ban “puts workers, their families, and the surrounding communities at risk for deadly disease and death from asbestos exposure, which as ProPublica detailed, is sickeningly frequent and widespread and without consequences for the companies that allow it to continue,” said Linda Reinstein in a statement.
Reinstein has helped build a coalition of doctors, public health experts, trade unions and advocates to push Congress to pass the asbestos ban. This week, Reinstein’s organization sent letters to members of Congress calling for their support and highlighting the findings of the ProPublica investigation.
“This powerful article explodes the decades-long claim of the chlor-alkali industry that its use of asbestos is safe for workers,” said Bob Sussman, a former deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration who now works as counsel for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “There can no longer be any doubt that, as EPA has found, asbestos-using plants present a serious risk to the worker health and this risk must be eliminated.”
The lawmakers filed the bill in May and it had one Senate committee hearing in June. Since the ProPublica report was published in collaboration with NPR last Thursday, three House members have signed on to co-sponsor the bill.
Unlike dozens of other countries, the United States has never fully banned asbestos. The EPA made an attempt to do so in 1989, but it was overturned in federal court in 1991, and efforts by lawmakers to outlaw the carcinogen have repeatedly fallen short. Meanwhile, the chemical industry has continued to import hundreds of tons of asbestos — more than 200,000 pounds — every year for use in chlorine production plants.
The industry has long fought against a ban by saying its workers were well protected by strict safety measures and strong workplace safety regulations. Public health organizations and lawmakers had suspected that those safety claims were exaggerated, but for years were unable to assess the conditions inside these plants.
The ProPublica investigation found that safety standards were routinely disregarded at what was once America’s longest-standing chlorine plant. Workers at the OxyChem Niagara Falls plant said asbestos would splatter on the ceilings and walls, roll across the floor like tumbleweeds and stick to workers’ clothes. Windows and doors were left open, allowing asbestos dust to escape. The company’s own industrial hygiene monitoring showed their workers were repeatedly exposed to unsafe levels. Federal workplace regulators had also stopped conducting regular unannounced inspections at the plant; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration included the Niagara Falls site and others like it in a special program for “exemplary” workplaces.
In response to ProPublica’s reporting, OxyChem said the health and safety of its workers is its top priority. The company said the workers’ accounts from Niagara Falls were inaccurate, but wouldn’t provide specifics on what was incorrect. The plant closed last year for unrelated reasons. Eight other plants in the U.S. still use asbestos.
“It’s devastating to see at every step of the way where worker safety wasn’t protected: by the companies, and by the EPA and OSHA during past administrations,” said Merkley.
Asbestos is a toxic mineral that can cause serious illnesses like scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a vicious cancer that kills most victims within a few years. The government’s inability to ban asbestos has been cited as one of the greatest failures of the U.S. chemical regulatory system. “The system was so complex, it was so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos — a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year,” President Barack Obama said in 2016 on the day he signed legislation meant to fix these problems.
Later that year, the EPA began the formal process of re-evaluating the risks associated with asbestos. It took five years, and in 2020, the agency determined chlorine workers were at “unreasonable risk” from their exposure to asbestos.
In April, the EPA proposed a new asbestos ban. The rule needs to be finalized before it goes into effect, and the EPA has said that it is planning to be done with that process by November 2023. In that time, EPA will consider industry arguments against a ban, including claims that workers face little risk of exposure. The chemical companies have also argued the ban could disrupt the country’s supply of chlorine used to clean drinking water, even though public health advocates say only a small portion of chlorine from asbestos-reliant plants is used for that purpose. Twelve Republican attorneys general have backed the companies and said an asbestos ban would place a “heavy and unreasonable burden” on the industry.
Michal Freedoff, the official in charge of chemical regulation at EPA, told ProPublica she could not comment on the final rule-making process but said the agency would not be backing down on the science.
The agency has already extended the original deadlines for evaluating and regulating asbestos. The evaluation was supposed to be complete three years after it started in 2016, and the regulations should have been finalized within two years after that. Lawmakers and public health advocates worry, given the chemical industry’s influence, that there will be even further delays or a new ban will be held up in court. (In response, the EPA pointed out that despite an increased workload, its budget for chemical regulation has remained flat for six years. It also said the Trump administration missed deadlines for nine out of the first 10 chemicals, including asbestos, that were to be regulated under the new 2016 law.)
Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund are calling for the EPA to expedite its ban, especially given the findings in the ProPublica investigation. The “reporting underscores the need to take action to ban chrysotile asbestos, particularly to protect workers,” said Maria Doa, senior director of chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Given the strong, well-established science on the unreasonable risks posed by chrysotile asbestos, we reiterate our call for EPA to expedite its final decision to ban chrysotile asbestos and to require rapid implementation of the ban.”
Merkley and Bonamici, along with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, are instead pushing Congress to write a ban into law, which would accelerate the process and make it harder for the industry to overturn it in court. The bill would ban all six known types of asbestos, whereas the EPA rule would only ban the one type primarily used in the U.S.
ProPublica reached out to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the chairs of the committees where the bill was filed. Carper said he remains “committed to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as advocates and industry stakeholders” on the proposal. Pallone, however, said he believed the EPA will act on asbestos. “I’m confident the Biden Administration takes this public health threat as seriously as I do, and look forward to continuing to work with them to get asbestos banned once and for all,” he said in a statement. The minority leaders of the committees, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., did not respond to questions or provide comment on the conditions at the Niagara Falls plant.