by Christopher Gerry

Weathering over fifty years’ worth of damning scientific evidence, asbestos, a known carcinogen, appears as resistant to American legislation as it is to fire, electricity, and heat. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous substance with properties that make it an attractive material for use in construction and manufacturing. An overwhelming amount of evidence, however, has linked ingestion or inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers to cancer—most notably a rare disease called mesothelioma—and no level of asbestos exposure is safe.

Despite these risks, roughly 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos while at work: shipbuilders, miners, electricians, and other blue-collar workers are at particularly high risk. In response, over 50 countries have banned all future uses of asbestos. While these bans must be coupled with the removal of existing asbestos products to be effective, they are a logical and productive first step. The United States, unfortunately, is still crawling.

Scientific evidence and human behavior diverge more frequently than this scientist would like to admit. Public opinion differs significantly from the scientific consensus on many important topics, but public opinion doesn’t seem to be the force that’s standing in the way of meaningful asbestos regulation. Instead, special interests appear to be subverting both scientific evidence and the will of the public. Politicians will need to craft robust legislation that’s capable of withstanding attacks from those who have a vested interest in asbestos’ success.

The ongoing battle in your body

The dangers of asbestos exposure have been known for over half a century. Research from the 1960s led by Dr. Irving Selikoff, who had previously co-developed a revolutionary tuberculosis drug, helped to establish the causal link between asbestos and diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. After noticing that a handful of workers from a local asbestos plant were dying of rare lung-related illnesses, Dr. Selikoff conducted several large studies that detailed the consequences of asbestos exposure. He observed that asbestos workers had significantly increased rates of cancer and mortality, and that some patients who had worked with asbestos for less than a week had detectable lung scarring 30 years later.

One of Dr. Selikoff’s most striking observations was the “remarkably high” incidence of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare (~3,000 cases per year in the United States) but highly lethal cancer of the tissue that lines your internal organs, most commonly the lungs. While most people who are exposed to asbestos will never develop the disease—only 3% of the workers in Dr. Selikoff’s study died of mesothelioma—asbestos accounts for over 80% of mesothelioma cases.

It’s unclear how asbestos exposure leads to mesothelioma, but one hypothesis involves our own immune systems. When inhaled asbestos fibers accumulate in the lungs and cause damage to the surrounding tissue, the body responds via a process called inflammation. This process recruits immune cells to the site of an injury to try to remove the problem and fix the damage that it caused. Inflammation promotes cell healing and growth, but it also generates chemicals that can damage the genetic material of nearby cells. When these “mutated” cells are encouraged to grow, they sometimes do so in an uncontrolled manner that leads to cancer. Short-term inflammation doesn’t cause cancer, but people exposed to asbestos suffer from chronic inflammation that can last for decades because the body is terrible at clearing asbestos fibers from the lungs.

The past battle in the legislature

Laws passed in the 1970s allowed federal authorities to regulate the use, distribution, and manufacture of asbestos. One of the most consequential pieces of legislation in this arena was the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which afforded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority over new commercial chemicals and existing chemicals that posed an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or to the environment.”

Several years of increasingly stiff regulations culminated in the EPA’s attempt to leverage the TSCA to enact an outright ban on almost all asbestos-containing products in 1989. Asbestos mining companies and product manufacturers quickly filed a lawsuit (supported by the Canadian government) challenging the ban, citing the high costs of finding a suitable asbestos alternative.

In the 1991 ruling ‘Corrosion Proof Fittings v. Environmental Protection Agency,’ the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected most of the EPA’s ban on technical grounds. It held that the EPA had violated the TSCA by not adequately demonstrating that the asbestos ban was the “least burdensome” action that could achieve an acceptable level of risk. In other words, the TSCA required the EPA to minimize the disruption to those being regulated rather than maximize public health benefits. The ruling also stated that the EPA had failed to prove that its proposed asbestos substitutes were safe, despite the overwhelming (and undisputed) dangers of asbestos itself. Asbestos has not been banned in the United States since.

After the defeat of the ban, incremental asbestos legislation continued to churn through Congress. One such bill passed in 2016 was the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which was the first major amendment to the TSCA. Among other provisions, the Lautenberg Act mandated the EPA to conduct risk assessments of hazardous chemicals and expanded the agency’s power to respond to the results of those studies. The EPA has since declared asbestos to be one of the first 10 chemicals it will evaluate, and it has recently proposed a significant new use rule (SNUR) that aims to curb future manufacturing, importing, and processing of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.

The upcoming battle in the EPA

The scientific evidence has been strong enough to convince many countries to ban all types of asbestos, so why are American federal agencies still at the “risk assessment” stage? Research is clearly not the problem—the EPA spent 10 years and millions of dollars adding to the already weighty corpus of asbestos research prior to its 1989 ban. Instead, lawmakers have been unable or unwilling to draft legislation strong enough to withstand challenges from lobbyists for the asbestos industry.

The Lautenberg Act was a necessary improvement to the TSCA—the original law couldn’t ban a known carcinogen, after all—but its increased reliance upon the EPA may have made it vulnerable to internal sabotage. President Trump has expressed skepticism about the dangers of asbestos repeatedly and without evidence. His administration’s first EPA Director, Scott Pruitt, was less than eager to discuss asbestos regulation during his confirmation process. And recently, the EPA has decided to ignore the effects of chemicals in the ground, air, or water in their risk evaluations—only direct exposure will be considered.

Despite the common slogan, data rarely speak for themselves. Only time will tell if this new legislation is as strong as the research it’s designed to empower.

Christopher Gerry is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology at Harvard University. He currently serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Science in the News blog.

2 thoughts on “When Politics Trumps Science: Why asbestos is still legal in the USA

  1. Typical hysteria and fear mongering. Yes, breathing certain types of asbestos dust is bad. Certainly, and no is disputing that. But asbestos thats embedded inside things and left undisturbed is no danger to anyone. And it really is very well suited for anything fire related, due to its great properties in that regard.

    Asbestos is hardly a compelling health problem. You know what is? All the hundreds of thousands of deaths a year to prescription drugs, that are very much over prescribed. The preventable deaths in hospitals due to infection and sepsis due to poor process, negligence, etc.

    How about Roundup causing cancer, and yet we eat food with it? How about the poor people in America not having access to quality food? It take lots of money to eat healthy in America.

    No, 3K deaths due to Asbestos is hardly a crisis. Sad, yes. It seems most of those deaths could be prevented if those people used proper breathing equipment. Very few of those deaths are accidental exposure.

    1. Hi George, I think that if you read my piece more closely, you’ll notice that I don’t call the asbestos issue a “crisis” nor do I engage in “fear mongering.” Rather, I focus on the (mostly political) factors that stand in the way of a known carcinogen and public health risk from being regulated in a meaningful, robust manner. Without these regulations, the manufacture, processing, and distribution of many asbestos-containing materials remains legal, which increases the number of people at risk of exposure. The consequences of this issue may not rise to the level of the examples that you cited (though thousands of deaths per year should be significant by anyone’s measure) but that doesn’t mean that action shouldn’t be taken when the evidence is so strong and the solution is so straightforward.

      I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out a few factual inaccuracies in your comment. All six types of asbestos are known carcinogens, so it’s not simply “certain types of asbestos dust” that are dangerous. Also, the ~3,000 deaths you cite are merely those due to mesothelioma; asbestos has been linked to lung cancer and other deadly diseases, so the annual death toll (in the US alone) likely exceeds 10,000 people. Finally, the idea that “asbestos thats [sic] embedded inside things and left undisturbed is no danger to anyone” ignores the fact that asbestos will eventually have to be disturbed by electricians, plumbers, roofers, contractors, and construction workers, among others, that perform maintenance or demolition on asbestos-containing structures. Rather than place the burden on those workers to wear “proper breathing equipment,” I would argue that the more practical (if not moral) solution would be to place the burden on the state to protect its citizens from known public health dangers.

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