WASHINGTON — The Trump administration issued a regulation last week to impose new restrictions on asbestos, a deadly substance once commonly found in insulation materials.
The final Environmental Protection Agency rule goes further than the initial version the agency had proposed, but public health advocates said it still fell short of the protections needed.
Under the rule, the agency will require companies to obtain federal approval to domestically manufacture or import specific types of products using asbestos. Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, the EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, said the rule would “close the door” on using asbestos without approval.
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to resist heat, fire and electricity but are also known carcinogens. Under the rule, if a company wanted to use the substance in any of 15 specific ways, including as a component in floor tile or roofing felt, it would have to seek EPA review and approval. Previously banned asbestos items like pipe insulation would remain banned.
“Prior to this new rule, EPA did not have the ability to prevent or restrict certain asbestos products from being reintroduced into the market,” Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s administrator, said in a statement. He said the measure gave regulators “unprecedented authorities” to prohibit asbestos products from entering or re-entering the market.
The move came days after Wheeler testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he would commit to banning current uses of asbestos under federal chemical safety law. Consumer groups said the EPA’s new regulation falls well short of that pledge.
Linda Reinstein, president of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an asbestos victim advocacy group, called the rule “toothless.” She said the regulation does not restrict the import of raw asbestos, which is commonly used in the chlorine industry.
According to the organization, asbestos poisoning is linked to about 40,000 deaths in the United States annually.
“More than 60 nations around the world have put public health before private profits and banned asbestos,” Reinstein said. “Americans deserve the same from our government.”
The EPA was required to create the process for regulating uses of asbestos under a 2016 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act. That Obama-era amendment requires the agency to regularly re-evaluate the harmfulness of toxic materials.
A version of the asbestos rule put forward last year prompted an outcry from EPA scientists, who said in internal emails obtained by The New York Times that they feared the regulation would make it easier for asbestos to come back into more widespread use.
But public health activists said the final rule had one important improvement over the previous version. It added a catchall category of “any use of asbestos not previously identified” that also would trigger review.
Gary Timm, a former chief of chemical testing at the EPA who retired in 2011 and works with the Environmental Protection Network, a consortium of former agency employees that has been critical of the rule, praised the measure Wednesday and said the group would not oppose it.
“A complete ban is appropriate, but this is an easier thing to do. It’s something that should put a fence around the current uses,” Timm said. “It’s a partial step, a good first step.”