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Allegheny County Health Department Reacts To Loosened Asbestos Rules

Weathered asbestos roof sheeting showing loose fibers.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced rule changes allowing the manufacture of new products containing asbestos after they undergo EPA review.

*This story was updated Tuesday, Aug. 21 at 9:39 a.m.

Once common in construction materials, the use of asbestos has dwindled due to its negative health effects and ensuing regulations and lawsuits. The material was favored due to its excellent insulating properties and strong resistance to fire, heat and electricity, and is commonly found in the tiles, insulation, adhesives and vinyl siding of older buildings.

Shannon Sandberg, who manages asbestos control for the Allegheny County Health Department, said the county does not have the authority to block the use of asbestos materials in new construction.

“We only regulate if it’s disturbed when there’s a future demolition or renovation project,” Sandberg said. “Even if it was built yesterday and going to be disturbed today, our regulations require the content to be tested for whether or not it contains asbestos.”

Enacted on June 1, the EPA’s Significant New Use Rule allows asbestos products to be approved by the government on a case-by-case basis. The change comes after a May 2018 revision of the way the agency will evaluate new uses – specifically, they will not include information on the risks from existing, or “legacy,” uses of asbestos.

In other words, as the New York Times reported in June, the agency no longer considers the dangers posed by the use and disposal of asbestos products already installed in millions of buildings when approving new uses.

A naturally occurring mineral mostly composed of silicon and oxygen, asbestos is made up of bundles of fibers. It’s a hazard to human health, because the dust can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled. The small fibers become stuck and can eventually lead to scarring in the form of asbestosis, which can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Sixty countries have banned the use of asbestos, but the United States has never completely blocked its use. Instead, it’s been heavily regulated under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

Allegheny County already ranks high for asbestos deaths, according to a 2015 study by the Environmental Welfare Group Action Fund. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 1,600 people died of asbestos-related illnesses. With a rate of 8.6 deaths per 100,000 people, the county’s mean rate was nearly than double the national average of 4.9.

Jim Kelly, the health department’s deputy director of environmental health, said that’s why the department has revitalized its asbestos program to focus on outreach.

“Pennsylvania’s one of the worst states in the country for asbestos mortality,” Kelly said. “Allegheny County is one of the worst in the state. So, it’s a real problem here because of the age of our building stock.”

Sandberg said the county’s regulations put the burden of testing for asbestos on property owners, who generally do home improvement projects that could potentially cause a health hazard to occupants, but it’s only a problem when renovations or demolitions release dust.

“Asbestos that is in good condition poses no health risk at all,” Sandberg said. “It’s only when you start disturbing it that you create a situation where the fibers become airborne.”

Because of the large liability issues surrounding the dangers of asbestos, no companies in the United States mine or manufacture products containing the material. Most of the world’s supply currently comes from Russia.

In June 2018, Uralasbest – a Russian asbestos mining company that operates a massive mine in eastern Russia near the Ural Mountains – posted pictures on Facebook of asbestos pallets stamped with a seal featuring Trump’s face.

Translated, it reads “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States,” according to the Washington Post. President Trump has long been a supporter of asbestos, writing in 1997 that removal efforts were “led by the mob” and tweeting in 2012 that the World Trade Center would have survived the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks “If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk.”

*This post was updated to include that county health officials do not have the authority to block the use of asbestos and to include the nature of home renovations projects done by county residents.

Jakob Lazzaro is an intern at WESA, covering all sorts of things as a general assignment reporter. He studies journalism and history at Northwestern University and previously worked at his hometown alt-weekly – the Charleston City Paper in Charleston, South Carolina.