U.S. fully bans asbestos, which kills 40,000 a year

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The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday finalized a ban on chrysotile asbestos, part of a family of toxic minerals linked to lung cancer and other illnesses that the agency estimates is responsible for about 40,000 U.S. deaths each year.

The federal ban comes more than 30 years after the EPA first tried to rid the nation of asbestos but was blocked by a federal judge. While the use of asbestos in manufacturing and construction has declined since, it remains a significant health threat.

“Folks, it’s been a long road. But with today’s ban, EPA is finally slamming the door on a chemical so dangerous that it has been banned in more than 50 countries,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

The agency’s ban targets chrysotile asbestos, also known as “white asbestos,” the only one of the six forms of the mineral still being used in the United States. Resistant to heat and fire, the mineral is used by companies that make vehicle braking systems and sheet gaskets. Chemical manufacturers have also defended its continued use in making chlorine, which utilities use to purify drinking water, as well as in pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

Michal Freedhoff, who heads chemical safety and pollution prevention for the EPA, called the ban historic, saying it is the first time the nation’s updated chemical safety law has been used to outlaw a dangerous substance. That law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was so weakened by the federal courts’ decision in 1991 allowing continued asbestos imports and use that “it was rendered almost powerless to protect the people who needed protecting the most,” Freedhoff said.

In 2016, America’s long delay in confronting asbestos prompted bipartisan concern among members of Congress, who voted to overhaul the law, giving the EPA sweeping new authority to protect people from toxins.

Yet years passed with little action. When the Trump administration came to power, it shrank the agency’s staff, leaving the chemical safety office too small, underfunded and demoralized to accomplish its mission.

Finally banning asbestos was at the top of Freedhoff’s to-do list when she became the agency’s top chemical regulator in 2021. As a congressional staffer, she had helped write the 2016 legislation. On a call with reporters Monday, she described the new rule as “a symbol of how the new law can and must be used to protect people.”

The trade group representing the chlorine industry, the American Chemistry Council, has staunchly opposed the administration’s proposed ban since it was announced two years ago, on the grounds that chrysotile asbestos is still used by about a third of U.S. chlor-alkali plants that produce chlorine. The industry group warned that banning this form of asbestos would make it difficult for water utilities to buy chlorine, threatening the safety of the nation’s drinking water.

Freedhoff said that once the EPA decided some of those concerns were valid, it changed its original enforcement timeline. Instead of having two years to phase out asbestos diaphragms, the eight American chlorine plants that still use this technology will have five years, or in some cases more, to switch to alternatives. Yet imports of new asbestos diaphragms will be prohibited immediately once the rule takes effect, 60 days after it appears in the Federal Register.

Imports of asbestos-containing brake blocks, which have exposed car mechanics to the deadly airborne fibers, will be phased out after six months. And asbestos gaskets will be banned after two years.

Environmental and public health advocates praised the new rule and urged the Biden administration to go further by addressing the other types of asbestos, arguing that anything less than a full ban doesn’t protect public health.

Although the use of asbestos has declined, in large part because of liability fears, construction workers, firefighters, paramedics and others who spend time in old buildings are still being exposed. Once building materials containing asbestos are demolished or otherwise disturbed, the mineral’s fibers can stick to skin and clothing, ultimately finding their way into people’s lungs. There is even a name, “asbestosis,” for a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

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