Last June, Barack Obama signed an environmental bill into law that enjoyed rare bipartisan support from Congress. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, named for the senator who had drafted the bill years earlier before dying in 2013, was celebrated by some environmentalists, EPA officials, and Obama as the first real chemical safety reform the United States had seen in decades.
Previously, all chemicals in commerce in the United States were regulated under the Toxic Control Substances Act of 1976, a law that environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council said was deeply flawed and ineffective. The original TCSA law grandfathered in an estimated 80,000 chemicals without safety testing, allowing companies to sell products containing chemicals for which little data was available.
The Lautenberg act, an amendment meant to reform the TSCA, was supposed to give regulators the power to demand safety reviews for commonly-used chemicals and require safety testing for new chemicals before they enter the market. Change, as always, would happen incrementally.
“Under the new law, we now have the power to require safety reviews of all chemicals in the marketplace," Jim Jones, assistant administrator of the of Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a press release following the bill's passage.
Asbestos from Montana mine brings new questions
In late November, EPA officials announced ten chemicals that they would evaluate under the new law. "If it is determined that a chemical presents an unreasonable risk, EPA must mitigate that risk within two years," the EPA explained at the time. Included in that list was asbestos, which the agency has already acknowledged causes lung disease. The EPA had tried to implement a ban on many asbestos-containing products in 1989, but a federal court overturned the regulations.
About a decade later, residents in the town of Libby, Montana discovered that a W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine just outside town had spread asbestos dust throughout the region. As many as 400 people died as a result, officials estimated. EPA officials from Region 8 spent the next 18 years overseeing the cleanup of a reported 2,000 properties nearby, as well as the mine itself.
The local clean-up was coming to a close shortly before Trump took office.
A warning for other homeowners?
Millions of homes and businesses across the country are likely still insulated with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, according to the Billings Gazette. But while the EPA implemented a local clean-up, the agency would not commit to informing the millions of other property owners across the country about the risks they faced, the local paper recently reported.
“It’s too early to say what the result will be and what action EPA will take. TSCA requires these chemical risk evaluations be completed within three years,” the paper quoted an EPA spokesperson as saying. The spokesman's comments, made shortly before Trump implemented what has been described as a "gag order" on EPA officials, drew criticism from public health advocates, who accused the agency of dragging its feet.
With gag order, state of chemical safety is unclear
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Donald Trump has claimed in interviews that asbestos is "100 percent safe, once applied." Trump was also sued by undocumented Polish immigrant workers in the late 90s who said they were exposed to asbestos during the construction of Trump Tower.
What Trump's pro-asbestos, anti-EPA attitude means for the fate of asbestos regulations under the EPA remains unclear. News outlets reported last week that employees at some federal agencies, including the EPA, were instructed to cease sending news releases or social media updates to the public. A memo sent to the EPA, obtained by the Washington Post, said that "a digital strategist will be coming on board" to screen the EPA's comments, adding that, “Incoming media requests will [be] carefully screened.”
Asked about the asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, and whether the EPA will warn other affected homeowners about the contaminated insulation, an EPA spokesman responded to ConsumerAffairs with a brief email: "Checking," is all it said.