On the surface, the EPA’s Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) looks promising, but in reality, the new regulation could allow more use of toxic asbestos in this country. The rule only applies to certain uses of asbestos and specific products. According to Baron & Budd, the EPA once stipulated that “importers and manufacturers of asbestos obtain prior approval before importing, processing or manufacturing asbestos in this country.”
Due to the changes, this leaves existing uses of asbestos wide open. By limiting the scope to “new” uses only, it lets the EPA off the hook for having to continue to evaluate construction materials or other discontinued uses of the product. In fact, as long as companies get approval first, they can now begin using asbestos in products that were previously banned. The EPA disagrees and claims that this new rule bolsters their existing regulations on asbestos.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been linked to mesothelioma and other cancers. Critics along with the public clearly oppose this new rule based on the 6,000 comments the EPA received after announcing it in June. The proposed SNUR reads: “The Agency has found no information indicating that the following uses are ongoing, and therefore, the following uses are subject to this proposed SNUR: Adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof coatings; arc chutes; beater-add gaskets; extruded sealant tape and other tape; filler for acetylene cylinders; high-grade electrical paper; millboard; missile liner; pipeline wrap; reinforced plastics; roofing felt; separators in fuel cells and batteries; vinyl-asbestos floor tile; and any other building material other than cement.”
Effects on Consumers and Employees in Asbestos Industries
Unlike the 60 countries where asbestos is banned entirely, in the U.S. it is simply regulated. It is still widely used in roofing, automobile manufacturing and the production of chlorine and sheet metal. In 1989 the EPA issued a ban on using asbestos in six categories: spray-on insulation, commercial and corrugated paper production, flooring felt, rollboard and specialty paper.
This new rule may effectively dissolve that ban, opening up opportunities for companies to begin resuming use of this toxic material in products again. Consumers may unwittingly purchase these products without even knowing they contain this dangerous carcinogen. Imported products containing asbestos could potentially be cheaper, therefore, save money in the production of these products.
However, companies that choose to use asbestos in their products will be putting employees and consumers at risk. Unless adequately protected, workers at manufacturing plants will be continually exposed to this harmful chemical and they may not even be aware of the dangers. The industries that would now be exempt from EPA evaluation have no obligation to ensure the safety of their employees or consumers.
In cases where asbestos was used in older homes or schools, the EPA is scaling back its evaluations, which could be devastating to the public. More children and adults may suffer from deadly diseases due to exposure to this toxic substance already in products that were not previously banned, but now the EPA refuses to review. There is the real potential that a lot more people will suffer if this new rule passes.
Product Recalls as Fallout
If the current government approves this rule, the fallout could be pricey. Once manufacturing plants start using asbestos in products regularly because they are no longer subject to evaluation, there will be recalls if the public gets sick from using their products. Preventing these types of disasters is always easier than cleaning them up after the fact. Product recalls are a fact of life, but it might take years to determine that products laced with asbestos are causing the illness.
Another issue with this is that asbestos was used in a lot of construction materials such as insulation and roofing. The cost to remove these products and replace them, in the event of a recall, could potentially ruin manufacturers and distributors of these products. The future of EPA regulations is unclear, but if studies show these products are dangerous and they issue a recall, the cost and cleanup could be devastating.
More than 2,500 products are recalled in America every year due to safety issues. With this rule, this number could potentially skyrocket.
An Ethical PR Nightmare
One purpose of a PR firm is to put a positive spin on potentially harmful information to preserve a company’s image and how it relates to their products and services. When a product is recalled or in the news due to someone getting hurt, social media and the public’s propensity to share negative information makes a public relations professional’s job that much harder.
The trick for PR firms when smoothing over bad news is balancing ethics with trying to save their client’s reputation. When this relates to asbestos, the problem is compounded by conflicting information from the EPA and studies that show people dying from diseases directly caused by this toxic mineral. Public relations firms often have to work overtime combatting the flurry of negative chatter on social media.
On the one hand, ethically, they have to communicate the risk to the public and direct them to medical or other support specialists. On the other hand, they may want to minimize the direct spotlight aimed at their client and the product in question that is the cause of speculation. It is a balancing act, for sure, and a complicated one for PR firms.
The Bottom Line
Asbestos-related deaths top 40,000 per year. With the influx of new products laced with this chemical, that figure could increase considerably over the next few years if the EPA’s SNUR rule is passed. With it, a lot of people and industries could be affected in different ways.
The new EPA rule would effectively leave out testing for asbestos in the air, water, and ground, as well as the long-term health effects on the public. Despite considerable evidence linking asbestos to larynx, lung, ovarian, and mesothelioma cancers, the SNUR proposes backing off from reviews.
It is not clear whether or not this new guideline will be passed, and time will tell the overall effect on business, consumers, employees, and the EPA.
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