BILLINGS, Mont. — Spurred by the chemical industry, President Trump’s administration is retreating from a congressionally mandated review of some of the most dangerous chemicals in public use: millions of tons of asbestos, flame retardants, and other toxins in homes, offices and industrial plants across the United States.
Instead of following former President Barack Obama’s proposal to look at chemicals already in widespread use that result in some of the most common exposures, the new administration wants to limit the review to products still being manufactured and entering the marketplace.
For asbestos, that means gauging the risks from just a few hundred tons of the material imported annually – while excluding almost all of the estimated 8.9 million tons of asbestos-containing products the U.S. Geological Survey said entered the marketplace between 1970 and 2016.
The review was intended to be the first step toward enacting new regulations to protect the public. But critics – including health workers, consumer advocates, members of Congress and environmental groups – contend ignoring products already in use undermines that goal.
The administration’s stance is the latest example of Trump siding with industry. In this case, firefighters and construction workers say the move jeopardizes their health.
Both groups risk harm from asbestos because of its historical popularity in construction materials ranging from roofing and flooring tiles, to insulation used in tens of millions of homes. Most of the insulation came from a mine in a Montana town that’s been declared a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site and where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.
“Hundreds of thousands of firefighters are going to be affected by this. It is by far the biggest hazard we have out there,” said Patrick Morrison, assistant general president for health and safety at the International Association of Fire Fighters. “My God, these are not just firefighters at risk. There are people that live in these structures and don’t know the danger of asbestos.”
The EPA said Wednesday there were measures to protect the public other than the law Congress passed last year, which mandated the review of asbestos and nine other chemicals to find better ways to manage their dangers.