The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the federal government must conduct safety reviews of millions of tons of dangerous substances, including lead and asbestos, that are no longer manufactured but still in public use.
The three-judge panel said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has unlawfully excluded asbestos and other toxic substances from review simply because they are no longer manufactured, even though these materials are known health hazards.
“The ruling marks a major victory for the IAFF, which has fought hard make sure the EPA monitors and regulates these legacy toxic materials,” says General President Harold Schaitberger.
Fire fighters are particularly susceptible to exposure to these toxic substances added over decades to common products, such as home insulation, fire retardant and plumbing materials, until they were pulled from production. These chemicals may not currently be manufactured in those consumer products, but legacy products remain a concern and exposure source for fire fighters.
In 2016, Congress passed, and President Obama signed a law updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), mandating that all chemicals be reviewed by the EPA. The Trump administration, at the urging of the chemical industry, has sought to limit the scope of TSCA and to exempt legacy activities from EPA review materials as they are no longer manufactured – such as asbestos.
The IAFF has, throughout EPA’s regulatory process, urged the administration to regulate legacy asbestos due to its toxic effects on fire fighters. The IAFF has also worked tirelessly urging Congress to make sure the EPA is doing all that it can to keep the public and fire fighters safe from dangerous chemicals.
“Fire fighters, like other Americans, have put our trust in the EPA to regulate these toxic chemicals, but unfortunately, we have witnessed only modest efforts by the current administration to protect the health and well-being of workers exposed to such chemicals,” said Assistant to the General President for Health and Safety Patrick Morrison in a March 2019 testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.
Research supports the need to closely monitor older toxic substances. A massive cohort study of 30,000 fire fighters conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found malignant mesothelioma is directly linked to asbestos, and that fire fighters were twice as likely to develop the deadly disease than the general population.
Asbestos becomes airborne when disturbed or damaged by fire. Fire fighters can inhale large amounts of these microscopic fibers, increasing their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
This ruling would require the EPA to go back and evaluate the legacy use for numerous chemicals they’ve evaluated through the TSCA process. This is a victory for labor organizations, despite what happens next. The 9th Circuit Court ruling may be appealed; the EPA has said the agency will review the decision.