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NGOs report spike in US asbestos imports

Workers - Asbestos ©Bernard MAURIN -

Imports of asbestos to the US are "surging", according to two NGOs which are calling for a widespread ban on the substance’s use.

The increase, they say, is "a major indicator that industry is not concerned about President Trump and the EPA taking any steps to ban or even reduce the use and import of asbestos".

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and Environmental Working Group (EWG) published import statistics last month, citing data from the US International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce.

They say that the US imported 272 metric tons of asbestos in August alone, bringing the year’s total to more than 550 tons – a jump from the 340 tons brought in throughout 2017.

Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of ADAO, told Chemical Watch that analysis of several years of data shows occasional spikes, but that August’s volume "far exceeds other high water marks".

"The jumps seem to correlate with elections where companies might think a change in Congress or the presidency will impact their ability to import – like right before the 2016 election and now leading up to a likely change in House leadership," she added. Ms Reinstein spoke to Chemical Watch ahead of the midterm elections that saw such a shift take place.

The American Chemistry Council told Chemical Watch that it does not have any specific information on the import numbers. But it said that historical data "indicate import quantities can vary greatly by month, suggesting fluctuations may be routine".

Controversy over chlor-alkali exemption

The import data analysis comes as asbestos remains at the centre of controversy in the US.

Consumer advocates have been highly critical that the ongoing risk evaluation of the substance – one of the first ten being conducted under the amended TSCA – does not include legacy uses and other exposures. Meanwhile, the EPA’s proposal to impose a significant new use rule (Snur) to require notification and approval for the reintroduction of a variety of abandoned, but otherwise unregulated, uses of asbestos, also made nationwide news, amid confusion that the agency was opening the door to new uses.

The EWG and ADAO, pointing to a report from the US Geological Survey which indicates that the only remaining user of raw asbestos in the US is the chlor-alkali industry, criticised that industry for its lobbying to maintain the exemption.

"It is appalling that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the US not only fails to ban asbestos, but allows imports to increase," said Ms Reinstein. "The time is now for the EPA to say no to the asbestos industry and finally ban asbestos without exemptions."

The ACC said that facilities that use chrysotile asbestos diaphragms, during the manufacturing process of chlorine and caustic soda, "adhere to established safety protocols to minimise potential asbestos exposure to works, the public and the environment".

"The chlor-alkali industry’s goal is that the use of asbestos continues to be protective of worker and environmental health," said the ACC.

The trade group and its members "have and will continue to work with the EPA to ensure the risk evaluation of asbestos is robust and scientifically accurate", it added.

Draft TSCA risk evaluations for asbestos and nine other substances are expected to be released in the coming months, with plans for these to be finalised by December 2019. Should the agency determine that asbestos poses an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment, the law requires that the EPA move directly to a risk management rule to address the identified concern.

The EPA indicated in its semiannual regulatory agenda that it plans to finalise the asbestos Snur in January.

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