White House Seeks Relaxation of Asbestos Standards

Lawmakers and public health experts are criticizing the Bush Administration for efforts that they characterize as a rush to water down the regulation of asbestos in the waning days of the administration. An Environmental Protection Agency plan to modify the calculation and measurement of cancer risk from asbestos has been critiqued by a panel of government scientific advisers, but the EPA is expected to make the change regardless. According to sources within the EPA, the Office of Material and Budget, an executive branch department, is seeking to appease elements within the mining, construction, automotive and chemical industries which face an ongoing onslaught of lawsuits related to asbestos-containing materials that the industries have used or manufactured. Twenty experts were appointed to a Scientific Advisory Board asbestos panel to review the EPA plan. The EPA proposed to modify the relative levels of toxicity for the six different types of asbestos which the government regulates.

Most controversially, the EPA plan downgrades chrysotile, the most commonly used type of asbestos, saying that it does not have a mesothelioma risk factor and is not a dangerous form of asbestos. This contradicts many years of studies which show that chrysotile is a dangerous form of the asbestos fiber. As part of the scientific review, the EPA submitted studies which it claims show chrysotile poses no danger. Members of the panel criticized those studies as being industry-financed and not being credible scientific research. The panel’s report will come out in about a month, but it is thought that the EPA might move ahead with the proposed changes regardless of the outcome. Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman, said “EPA will review the committee’s comments and take them into consideration as we decide how to proceed. But we can move ahead without future approval from OMB or the (Science Advisory Board).”