Chemical industry fights U.S. government move to ban asbestos

by Fabio Teixeira and David Sherfinski | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 April 2022 18:24 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A boulder containing chrysotile, or white asbestos, lies at the Cana Brava mine in Minacu, northern Goias State, Brazil, January 18, 2013. Cana Brava is the only mine producing chrysotile in Latin America. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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Business says a ban would cause job losses and drinking water shortages, but health advocates say it would protect workers and communities at home and abroad

  • Cancer-causing chrysotile asbestos used to produce chlorine
  • Opponents of ban say it will cut drinking water, jobs
  • Ending U.S. asbestos use seen as 'environmental justice' issue

By Fabio Teixeira and David Sherfinski

- A groundbreaking move by the Biden administration to ban a key form of asbestos in the United States would close factories and affect thousands of workers, say industry groups and a chemical company pushing for continued use of the cancer-causing mineral.

In a major step in a years-long push, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this month formally proposed banning chrysotile asbestos, the sole known form of the mineral imported into the United States today.

Asbestos diaphragms are used to produce chlorine in 10 chlor-alkali plants in the United States, one of which is expected to close this year.

The factories, owned by three different firms, account for about a third of U.S.-based chlor-alkali production, while other plants do not use asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine, according to the EPA.

Chlorine has a wide range of applications, including treating drinking water and manufacturing pharmaceuticals, circuit boards, auto parts and lithium batteries.

Although alternatives exist to using asbestos to make chlorine, the industry is resistant to transition away from asbestos even after U.S. production of it was halted in 2002.

Despite the mineral's well-known association with damaging health effects, campaigners said the EPA's proposed rule to ban chrysotile asbestos is a prime example of the commercial barriers to ditching polluting and harmful substances.

According to the EPA, raw chrysotile asbestos imported into the United States from countries like Brazil is used exclusively by the chlor-alkali industry.

"They're trying to scare Americans with the threat of closing their plants, which means workers lose jobs, but also that Americans won't have clean water," said Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a U.S.-based non-profit.

The EPA's proposed rule kick-started a 60-day comment period for the public to weigh in, after which the agency could review the rule based on new contributions.

If the rule is then finalised and implemented, there would be a two-year period to end asbestos use in chlor-alkali plants.

"We urge EPA to reconsider the specific condition of use of the chemical substance and the drastic impact it would have on drinking and wastewater systems," Martin J. Durbin, a top official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a comment to the EPA, asking for a 30-day extension to the consultation.

"Any phase-out of asbestos for chlorine production will result in immediate Olin production facility closures," said a slide in a presentation from Olin Corporation, one of the country's largest chlorine producers.

The presentation was submitted as part of the federal rule-making process ahead of the decision by the EPA. Olin representatives had argued that asbestos can be safely handled for chlorine production and should be exempted from a ban.

Olin did not reply to repeated requests for comments.

"They had 20 years to transition," said campaigner Reinstein, predicting that industry bodies will now try to delay the phase-out process as long as possible.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

The costs for factories to shift to a different process would be offset over the years, as newer methods of chlorine production are more efficient and would also lead to lower planet-heating carbon emissions, according to an economic analysis of the proposed rule.

The document, prepared partly by outside consultants for the EPA, said an asbestos ban was also a question of "environmental justice", as vulnerable groups may be more exposed to the risks.

"Six facilities are located in communities in Louisiana or Texas that have a high concentration of people of color and disproportionately high cancer risks from toxic releases," the analysts wrote.

Industry bodies said there are already robust environmental and labor regulations and industry standards in place that limit employee exposure.

Converting to different technologies is a capital-intensive, lengthy process with "little to no health benefits to industry workers", the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the ACC, in 2019, the chlor-alkali industry generated over 48,000 jobs. The ACC did not say what the impact on jobs of an asbestos ban would be, but estimated it could lead to as much as $19.9 billion in direct output losses per year.

"This is a difficult question to answer," Robyn Brooks, an official with the Chlorine Institute, an industry body, said in a statement about the potential effect on jobs.

But Brooks noted 100 workers would be directly affected by the rule because they had been trained to "safely" handle asbestos in chlor-alkali processes at the nine factories.

Asbestos use also exposes workers outside of those facilities – for example, dock workers who handle imported material coming from other countries, noted Greg Russell of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a U.S. labor union.

And the number of workers affected is not limited to the United States, said Fernanda Giannasi, founder of ABREA, a Brazilian association of people exposed to asbestos.

While asbestos use is banned in Brazil, it still exports the toxic material, including to the United States.

On Sunday, a truck carrying asbestos headed to overseas markets fell down a bridge in Brazil, releasing the cancer-causing substance into a river, with the case now under investigation by Brazilian labor authorities.

"The supply chain goes through several stages until it arrives in the United States," said Giannasi, noting hundreds of miners, truck drivers, dock workers and public servants in Brazil get exposed to asbestos because of foreign demand.

"There are too many people involved in it."

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(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt and David Sherfinski; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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