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Americans Face an Irreversible Rollback in Chemical Safety | Commentary

By Linda Reinstein Nearly forty years ago, Congress recognized the dire need to protect the public from toxic chemicals with the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This landmark law gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate industrial chemicals, and gave hope to Americans that they could live in an environment that was free of dangerous toxins.  

Unfortunately, 1976 TSCA has failed miserably, and the EPA has only managed to ban five chemicals since 1976. Today, 84,000 chemicals remain present in U.S. homes, schools, the environment, and consumer products. Shockingly, among these ever-present poisons is asbestos.  

For more than 100 years, scientific studies have confirmed asbestos exposure can cause the devastating and always-fatal mesothelioma, as well as lung, gastrointestinal, laryngeal and ovarian cancers, asbestosis and pleural diseases. The World Health Organization estimates 107,000 workers around the world will die every year of an asbestos-related disease. And in the U.S., 41 Americans die every day from asbestos-related diseases. Yet, asbestos is still legal in the U.S. and imports continue.  

In fact, asbestos — of all things — was the vehicle that allowed the chemical industry to break 1976 TSCA, and put public health and safety at indefinite risk. In 1989, after conducting a ten-year study, the EPA issued a final rule under Section 6 of TSCA banning most asbestos-containing products. Yet, just two years later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban in Corrosion Proof Fittings vs. EPA. As a result, most of the original ban on the manufacturing, importation, processing, and/or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products covered in the 1989 final rule was overturned and Americans remain at constant risk of exposure to this deadly substance.  

It’s no wonder that TSCA reform is “big business.” According to Open Secrets, in 2014, the chemical industry spent more than $64.7 million lobbying Washington. The chemical industry has vast resources to influence the regulation of dangerous chemicals, but Americans pay the ultimate price – in many cases with their lives. Although it may appear progress has been made with the passage of the TSCA Modernization Act (HR 2576) and Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall’s, D-N.M., “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act” (S 697) — which will soon go to the Senate floor — we are dangerously far away from real TSCA reform. Astonishingly, both bills ignored even mentioning asbestos.  

Just months ago, Udall acknowledged, “The poster child for TSCA reform is asbestos.” He’s absolutely right. Real TSCA reform must ensure the EPA can expeditiously review unsafe chemicals like asbestos and take action to protect public health. As written without an asbestos amendment, this legislation allows the EPA discretion to select which high priority chemicals will be prioritized for testing instead of mandating the prioritization of deadly chemicals such as asbestos.  

Shockingly, three independent investigations in 2000, 2007, and just again in 2015 confirmed asbestos contamination in consumer products and children’s toys. Over the past fifteen years, the U.S. consumed 55,000 metric tons of asbestos and an estimated 150,000 Americans have died from preventable, asbestos-related deaths. Congress, the EPA, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have taken no action to stop these toxic imports.  

The USA lags behind the European Union and Australia in regulating asbestos. More than 50 countries have banned it, and these countries remain economically viable without asbestos in consumer products and toys. Unlike the USA, the EU has placed the burden of protection on industry instead of the everyday consumer, and established REACH (the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) to hold industries responsible for assessing and managing the risks posed by the chemicals they produce, use, and sell. Instead of individuals and nonprofits spending time and dollars privately investigating asbestos in consumer products, they consider it industry’s responsibility.  

The time is now for real TSCA reform.  

Americans demand and deserve legislation that protects us from hazardous chemicals and lethal carcinogens, not a chemical industry-supported TSCA rollback.  

Unfortunately, both proposed bills fall short of what is needed to ensure meaningful TSCA reform, especially when it comes to asbestos. Now is the time for our lawmakers to come together to pass a bill to end the asbestos man-made disaster, ensure that this killer is expeditiously banned, and finally protect the American public from toxic chemical hazards.  

Linda Reinstein, is president/CEO and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

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