By Matthew Brown
The Associated Press
BILLINGS, MONT.»Spurred by the chemical industry, President Donald Trump’s administration is retreating from a congressionally mandated review of some of the most dangerous chemicals in public use: millions of tons of asbestos, flame retardants and other toxins in homes, offices and industrial plants across the United States.
Instead of following President Barack Obama’s proposal to look at chemicals already in widespread use that result in some of the most common exposures, the new administration wants to limit the review to products still being manufactured and entering the marketplace.
For asbestos, that means gauging the risks from just a few hundred tons of the material imported annually — while excluding almost all of the estimated 8.9 million tons of asbestos-containing products that the U.S. Geological Survey said entered the marketplace between 1970 and 2016.
The review was intended to be the first step toward enacting new regulations to protect the public. But critics — including health workers, consumer advocates, members of Congress and environmental groups — contend ignoring products already in use undermines that goal.
The administration’s stance is the latest example of Trump siding with industry. In this case, firefighters and construction workers say the move jeopardizes their health.
Both groups risk harm from asbestos because of its historical popularity in construction materials ranging from roofing and flooring tiles to insulation used in tens of millions of homes. Most of the insulation came from a mine in a Montana town that’s been declared a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site and where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.
“Hundreds of thousands of firefighters are going to be affected by this. It is by far the biggest hazard we have out there,” said Patrick Morrison, assistant general president for health and safety at the International Association of Fire Fighters. “My God, these are not just firefighters at risk. There are people that live in these structures and don’t know the danger of asbestos.”
The EPA told The Associated Press on Wednesday that there were measures to protect the public other than the law Congress passed last year, which mandated the review of asbestos and nine other chemicals to find better ways to manage their dangers. For example, workers handling asbestos and emergency responders can use respirators to limit exposure, the agency said in a statement.
Asbestos fibers can become deadly when disturbed in a fire or during remodeling, lodging in the lungs and causing problems including mesothelioma, a form of cancer. The material’s dangers have long been recognized. But a 1989 attempt to ban most asbestos products was overturned by a federal court, and it remains in widespread use.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health analyzed cancer-related deaths among 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The 2015 study concluded firefighters contract mesothelioma at twice the rate of other U.S. residents.
Firefighters also face exposure to flame retardants included in the EPA’s review that are used in furniture and other products.
“I believe the chemical industry is killing firefighters,” said Tony Stefani, a former San Francisco fireman who retired in 2003 after 28 years when diagnosed with cancer he believes resulted from exposure to chemicals in the review.
Stefani said he was one of five in his station to contract cancer in a short period. Three later died, while Stefani had a kidney removed and endured a year of treatment before being declared cancer-free.
“When I entered the department in the early ’70s, our biggest fear was dying in the line of duty or succumbing to a heart attack,” he said. “Those were the biggest killers, not cancer. But we work in a hazardous-materials situation every time we have a fire now.”
Mesothelioma caused or contributed to more than 45,000 deaths nationwide between 1999 and 2015, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in March. The number of people dying annually from the disease increased about 5 percent during that time.
In one of its last acts under Obama, the EPA said in January it would judge the chemicals “in a comprehensive way” based on their “known, intended and reasonably foreseen uses.”
Under Trump, the agency has aligned with the chemical industry, which sought to narrow the review’s scope. The EPA now says it will focus only on toxins still being manufactured and entering commerce. It won’t consider whether new handling and disposal rules are needed for “legacy,” or previously existing, materials.
“EPA considers that such purposes generally fall outside of the circumstances Congress intended EPA to consider,” said EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones, adding the agency lacks authority to regulate noncommercial uses of the chemicals.