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Why Deadly Chemicals May Linger in Cities Under the EPA's New Administrator

Scott Pruitt remains unconvinced of the dangers of asbestos.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
Susan Walsh/AP

Last week, the Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt’s nomination was controversial for any number of reasons, the most prominent being his repeated attempts to sue the very organization he now runs.

According to thousands of emails obtained by The New York Times, Pruitt’s battles with the EPA were likely influenced by close ties to major oil and gas producers. On Wednesday, the Times reported that Pruitt received draft letters from energy companies to send to federal regulators and participated in meetings to contest the EPA under the Obama administration.

But there’s reason to believe that these industry ties may run even deeper. In a recent hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt appeared unconvinced about the dangers of asbestos, a deadly material often found in chemical plants, oil refineries, and electric power plants. In addition, prominent law firms that were linked to Pruitt by the Times have defended major corporations against asbestos litigation.

What’s the risk?

After being informed by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey that asbestos was responsible for the deaths of nearly 63,000 Americans from 1999 to 2014, Pruitt responded: “Asbestos has been identified by the EPA as a high-priority chemical that requires a risk evaluation… Prejudging the outcome of that risk evaluation process would not be appropriate.”

During the same confirmation hearing, Pruitt also admitted that he had “not reviewed the scientific studies correlating blood lead levels to impacts in children,” and indicated that he did not know if a safe level of lead existed. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration uphold that there is no safe level of lead or asbestos exposure.

Bruce Armstrong, emeritus professor at the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, maintains that asbestos is “absolutely” an environmental hazard. The World Health Organization has even dubbed the material “one of the most important occupational carcinogens.”

A fatal environmental hazard

While asbestos is often associated with a period following World War II when the cheap, flexible, and fire-resistant material was widely used for commercial construction, it continues to take the lives of an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans each year. In general, exposure to asbestos can lead to three major diseases: asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The latter of these three, which has a life expectancy of 12 to 21 months, can result from relatively minimal exposure.

Although asbestos is widespread in the environment, most people are exposed by breathing in particles through the air. This can occur in buildings, schools, or homes with deteriorating cement, drywall, roof shingles, or ceiling and floor tiles that were manufactured using the carcinogen. Since around half the schools in the U.S. were built between 1950 and 1969, the EPA estimates that asbestos can be found in around 132,000 of the country’s primary and secondary schools.

According to a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the level of asbestos in the air in cities is around 10 times higher than in rural areas. From 1948 to 1993, around 5.8 million tons of asbestos-containing material were shipped to 208 cities across the U.S., with some of the largest shipments ending up in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago.

Asbestos also remains a concern for 9/11 survivors and first responders in New York City. In 2015, Dr. Raja Flores, chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center, told CityLab that he anticipated a sharp rise in 9/11-related cancers over the next 30 years, due in large part to the 300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers that were used to construct the World Trade Center.

Last December, the EPA designated asbestos as a top 10 chemical for review and regulation under statutory law. Nevertheless, the United States remains one of the few industrialized countries without a comprehensive ban. Although the EPA attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products in 1989, the majority of this ban—including the commercial manufacturing, importation, processing, and distribution of asbestos-containing products—was overturned in 1991. Under existing legislation, only “new uses” of asbestos—or products that did not historically contain the material—are prohibited.

Although the scientific link between asbestos and fatal diseases was confirmed by the late 1970s, those with chemical or manufacturing ties still question its hazardous properties. Over the years, the asbestos industry has channeled millions of dollars into independent research that contradicts established scientific claims.

The price of a life

When her husband was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2003, Linda Reinstein, the co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, says she felt deceived by her country. Like many, she never imagined that her husband, a businessman who wore a suit and tie to work each day, would contract a disease from a few brief encounters with what she assumed was a banned substance. Upon researching mesothelioma and advocating for anti-asbestos legislation in Washington, D.C., Reinstein soon realized that she was dealing with a massive “corporate cover-up."

In recent years, Reinstein has been an advocate for reforming the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to include a law signed this past summer, which institutes harsher crackdowns on asbestos regulation in schools, as well as public and commercial buildings. Per the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, only health and environmental factors can be used to determine asbestos regulation. The law also instructs the EPA to identify disproportionately susceptible or highly exposed populations, which comes as welcome news to cities and industrial areas. The product of a 10-year negotiation with the chemical industry, the law took so long to approve that its namesake, Senator Frank Lautenberg, died before it passed.

Although ADAO’s efforts have received bipartisan support in the past, Reinstein maintains that asbestos issues often seem partisan. She says that “Pruitt could easily instruct the EPA to give [trade associations like the American Chemistry Council] an exemption” to existing regulations, allowing them to “delay and destruct policy until they’re sued.”

The American Chemistry Council recently issued a statement congratulating Pruitt on his confirmation. At a conference on Thursday, the organization’s CEO, Cal Dooley, reiterated his support for “Administrator Pruitt’s commitment to the best available science under the [Lautenberg Act].” Last August, the ACC asked for leniency under the new EPA regulations, arguing that “because [their] use of asbestos … is confined in the production process, worker exposure risk is essentially eliminated.”

As someone with decades of cancer research experience, Armstrong agrees that lower exposure often results in lower risk. Still, he echoes OSHA in saying that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. “The mechanism by which asbestos [causes] cancer is there at the initiation stage,” he tells CityLab. “There is no need whatsoever for any country to import or use asbestos.”

Industry versus science

So what does it mean when the new EPA administrator is unwilling to admit to the dangers of a public health hazard? Thanks to the Lautenberg Act, it is unlikely that the U.S. will again become reliant on asbestos-contaminated construction materials. However, without a ban in place, toxic imports continue. In 2007, an independent ADAO investigation discovered asbestos in five consumer products, including a children’s toy. In the year 2015 alone, the U.S. legally imported an estimated 716,000 pounds of asbestos for consumption.

“[Asbestos removal] is still a priority for us,” says David Rizzolo, the Operations Manager at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “We take it very seriously.” In a city with an abundance of older housing and buildings, Rizzolo estimates that asbestos “will never be gone from our building stock.” Although he expects it could take a while for changes in the EPA to affect his health department, Rizzolo insists that “if you nibble away at federal support for EPA regulations, it could erode support for local air districts [that regulate asbestos].” Although asbestos is one of many health hazards plaguing our cities, denying or ignoring its risks could ultimately lead to decreased funding for regulation and removal, as well as major exemptions for chemical, manufacturing, oil, gas, or energy producers.   

“Asbestos is big industry,” says the ADAO’s Midwestern Regional Director and mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James. “[Under the new EPA administration,] we’re seeing everything that we’ve worked so hard for unravel before our very eyes.” And yet both she and Reinstein view Pruitt’s confirmation as further motivation to continue their fight for a comprehensive ban. “No one is backing away,” says Reinstein. “We’ve never been stronger as advocates and environmentalists to work on a grassroots level to make sure that [the current laws are] upheld.”

Indeed, in a battle between science and industry, Reinstein still believes that her team will come out on top. “We have something more powerful than money,” she says. “We have the truth.”

About the Author

  • Aria Bendix
    Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.