Reform of “Toxic Substance” Rules Could Increase Health Risks

Several years ago, the chemical industry joined forces with certain environmental groups to push reform to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which passed into law this year. Although it was not unwarranted for safety reasons (as I detailed before), TSCA reform has granted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greater power to remove chemicals from the market.

The drumbeat for chemical bans started quickly after President Obama signed TSCA into law last June. Activist groups have apparently placed asbestos high on their list of chemicals they want banned under the new law, and they’re likely to succeed.

It’s certainly true that asbestos fibers pose cancer and other health risks, particularly fibers of amphibole asbestos, which are relatively long and thin and easily embed in human tissue. The type of asbestos used today in the United States is mostly chrysotile asbestos, which is less dangerous because its fibers are shorter and thicker and don’t embed in tissue as easily. Still, all asbestos fibers pose risks that must be managed. [For more details see the American Council on Science and Health’s helpful paper on asbestos risk.]

However, if human exposure is controlled to prevent inhalation, public health can be safeguarded while these products are used in beneficial applications. Since they retard flames and have good insulating qualities, they have been used in construction materials, machinery, and other products.

As I have detailed before, the life-saving benefits of these products prompted a federal court to overrule an EPA proposal to ban them in 1991. The chrysotile asbestos that EPA wanted to ban was safely contained inside automobile brakes and had important benefits to automobile safety. The court denied EPA’s ban because it was likely to increase brake failures and thereby increase highway fatalities. At the time, TSCA law required that the EPA select the “least burdensome” regulations to achieve safety goals under TSCA, and EPA’s proposed ban didn’t meet that standard.

After all, a net loss of life is indeed a burden that society should not have to bear as a result of a so-called safety regulation!

Nonetheless, the failure of EPA to ban all asbestos was used as an excuse to advance TSCA reform and, as a result, the law no longer demands that EPA choose the “least burdensome” regulation.

So now activist groups are calling for a ban on all types of asbestos uses—regardless of their benefits.  And they may well succeed, even if the societal burden is a net loss of human life.

In addition to losing valuable uses for brakes, an asbestos ban will likely impact other useful products. For example, an article on reports that it may adversely affect chlorine producers. While activists seem to hate chlorine just as much, it is essential in controlling deadly pathogens in drinking water, hospitals, homes and elsewhere. Clearly, there’s plenty evidence that without adequate chlorination, people die.

TSCA reform was supposed to make life safer, but it appears that the real risk to life and public well-being lies in its implementation.