Will EPA Leave Building Owners in a Pickle on Asbestos?

Will EPA Leave Building Owners in a Pickle on Asbestos?

“In a pickle” — an idiom in the U.S. lexicon, meaning “in a tough spot” — much like a cucumber, stuck sitting in vinegary brine for days on end. It’s often used the MLB to describe something like this. We’re not playing baseball, nor is asbestos a game, but the current state of asbestos regulations in the U.S. leaves many building owners in a pickle.

It may come as a surprise, but many uses of asbestos are still legal in the U.S. Many buildings built before 1980 – commercial buildings, public buildings like schools, manufacturing facilities, military shipyards, and others – contain asbestos building components. The proper handling of such materials in daily maintenance and renovation projects is costly but essential to protect worker and public health as well as a project’s bottom line.

55 countries around the world have banned asbestos completely. The U.S. is still lagging behind even though there are ZERO manufacturers producing or selling asbestos products in the U.S. today (due to cancer & litigation risks). In 2016, EPA had been preparing to administer a new TSCA review process for asbestos, with an eye towards banning its use, when new Agency leadership decided to take a different approach.

Instead of pursuing a simple ban, in June 2018, U.S. EPA issued a proposed “Significant New Use Rule” (SNUR) that would open the door for new manufacturing of asbestos-containing building materials. This would in turn lead to new installations in buildings that ultimately pose health threats for inhabitants and workers.

The SNUR proposal effectively shapes a risk review that does not consider legacy pathways of asbestos exposure (from materials currently installed in buildings), leaving out the bulk of existing data about human exposure to asbestos. By excluding this data, EPA will conclude an artificially low risk profile for proposed new products, clearing the way for more asbestos-containing material to enter the U.S. market.

The SNUR proposal muddies the waters instead of simplifying things for the building industry. It creates a new regulatory process for a known carcinogen and creates greater liability potential for building owners by leaving the asbestos question unresolved.

What’s a building owner or manager to do?

Most uses of asbestos are still “legal” but have been discontinued due to cancer risks and litigation risks. If your building contains asbestos, keep the following in mind:

Sometimes it’s best to remove asbestos-containing material, but sometimes it’s safest to leave it undisturbed. You need to understand the difference, and a certified professional can help.

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NOTE: This SNOPES article offers a great explanation of what is wrong with U.S. EPA’s proposed Significant New Use Ruling (SNUR) for asbestos. EPA is ignoring the fact that about 30,000 people die every year in the U.S. due to asbestos that currently exists in buildings. A complete ban on most uses would simplify federal regulatory guidance and help building owners manage costs while better protecting public health.