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Donald Trump has a weird soft spot for asbestos

His EPA is imposing new restrictions but won’t ban it.

Asbestos workers in a mine in Russia. The EPA is taking steps to restrict some asbestos products but activists want a total ban.
Asbestos workers in a mine in Russia. The EPA is taking steps to restrict some asbestos products, but activists want a total ban.
Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Asbestos was once hailed as a wonder material for fabrics and insulation. Strong, cheap, lightweight, and fire-resistant, it quickly found its way into everything from concrete to cars in the early 20th century.

But people who worked with asbestos soon discovered it was a dangerous carcinogen. Its tiny, needle-like fibers penetrate deep into the respiratory system, causing illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer. It’s led to the longest, most expensive mass tort litigation in US history, costing $70 billion. More than 850,000 people have sued for asbestos-related injuries. And 60 countries eventually banned it entirely.

By the 1970s, the US had phased it out in most buildings, and eventually it was banned in products like corrugated paper and flooring felt. The US Environmental Protection Agency tried for a total ban in the late 1980s, but manufacturers sued and a federal court blocked the agency.

These days, asbestos is still allowed in a few products including brake pads, roof coatings, floor tiles, and clothing. Now the mineral has a champion in the White House, and at least one (Russian) producer is quite pleased with what President Trump is aiming to do for asbestos.

Trump’s EPA is weighing a proposal, called a “significant new use rule,” or SNUR, that would add new scrutiny and restrictions to some asbestos products. But anti-asbestos campaigners warn that it may leave the door open to new asbestos-containing items entering the US market.

The agency made the proposal on June 11 and is taking public comments on it through the end of this week. (As the Hill’s Timothy Cama pointed out on Twitter, part of the reason we’re just hearing about it now is that the airwaves at the time were saturated with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s scandals.)

The EPA is framing the asbestos proposal as closing a loophole.

“The uses that are covered in the significant new use rule can come to market prior to the SNUR being proposed at any time with no knowledge, no evaluation,” Charlotte Bertrand, acting principal assistant administrator in the EPA chemical office, told ABC News.

Under the rule, manufacturers of asbestos products would have to notify the EPA before an asbestos-containing item hits shelves to give the agency time to see whether it poses too high of a risk. This is mainly aimed at manufacturers that want to revive out-of-date uses for asbestos, like roofing felt, according to the EPA.

But environmental activists say this is insufficient protection. Instead, they want a blanket ban on the material and to close down the pipeline for any new uses. They point out that the EPA’s proposal makes determinations on the safety of asbestos products on a case-by-case basis, which means the agency could in theory approve new items for sale that contain the deadly carcinogen.

EPA officials said it’s unlikely that new uses would be approved given all the known health hazards of asbestos. “By doing the SNUR, if someone wants to start the manufacturing and processing, if we find risk, we can prevent it,” Nancy Beck, a deputy associate administrator in the EPA’s chemical safety office, told the Hill.

The EPA also noted that the Obama administration had the opportunity to issue more restrictions on asbestos and declined to do so.

However, a Russian asbestos producer, Uralasbest, is treating the new proposal as a win. The company in June posted photos on Facebook of pallets stacked with asbestos and stamped with President Trump’s image. The US no longer mines asbestos, but mining still occurs in Russia, which is the world’s largest asbestos producer. So Russian miners may see the EPA’s decision not to ban asbestos completely as a crucial market staying open.

Дональд на нашей стороне! Комбинат «Ураласбест» выпустил необычную партию хризотила: на упаковке паллетов с минералом...

Posted by ОАО "Ураласбест" on Sunday, June 24, 2018

According to the Environmental Working Group, the translation reads:

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.”

And Trump himself seems to be a fan of asbestos. He tweeted in 2012 that the World Trade Center would not have burned down in the 9/11 attacks if it had had asbestos insulation.

The Washington Post noted that he wrote that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob” in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback.

After the public comment period ends on August 10, the EPA will start putting together its final version of the rule.

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