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Sarah Wolf comments on worrying reports regarding asbestos use in the USA

Sarah Wolf
The Fieldfisher mesothelioma team is closely monitoring the furore that has broken out in the US following reports that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent agency of the US government, has paved the way for the use of new products containing asbestos.

According to the Architect's Newspaper, a monthly online and print publication in the US, a recent report from the EPA enacted a 'SNUR' (a Significant New Use Rule) allowing the manufacture of new asbestos-containing products to be petitioned and approved by the federal government on a case-by-case basis. There is concern that President Trump has previously described asbestos bans as a conspiracy, led by self-interested companies performing asbestos removal.

The USA is one of the only developed nations that has still not banned asbestos outright in what some describe as an ongoing conflict between corporate and public interest. Asbestos has been widely banned in most developed countries, including the UK, as knowledge of its risks has become clear.

The US non-profit Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization announced findings earlier this year that showed there are nearly 40,000 asbestos-related deaths in the US annually. Asbestos deaths have previously been reported at around 15,000 every year by US government agencies.

Following concerned response from architects on Twitter, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) issued a formal statement this week opposing the EPA's decision. Sarah Dodge, the AIA's senior vice president of advocacy and relationships, published a letter to the EPA calling for it to establish a blanket ban on asbestos in the US and to phase out its use completely.

She also went on to say that it was the responsibility of architects to oversee the use of healthy materials in building projects and to guide safe removal where such toxins already exist.

The AIA President Carl Elefante also issued a statement, saying: "The EPA has offered no compelling reason for considering new products using asbestos, especially when the consequences are well known and have tragically affected the lives of so many people. The EPA should be doing everything possible to curtail asbestos in the United States and beyond—not providing new pathways that expose the public to its dangers."

The EPA responded on Twitter saying that the new rule has not been accurately reported. The public has until today to submit comments to the EPA regarding the SNUR, which the EPA will review. It is expected to release final comment and a new version of the rule at the end of 2019.

We will wait to read more about these very worrying developments in the US. It goes without saying that any relaxation of bans on materials containing asbestos is not in the interests of employees of companies producing or using such materials, nor for the public who may come into contact with them.

History has proved the devastating impact of asbestos on people's lives and the tragedy it has wreaked on people unknowingly going about their work and also on their families. Deaths from mesothelioma are currently reaching a peak as those affected reach their 60s, meaning the emotional and social costs of asbestos exposure are only now being widely revealed.

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