Workers are people too; EPA should treat them that way

EPA’s proposed TSCA rule to limit risks from chrysotile asbestos uses a higher “acceptable” cancer risk for workers than the rest of the population

Maria Doa, Ph.D., Senior Director, Chemicals Policy

When it comes to drawing the line on cancer risks, should workers be treated differently than the general population? Of course not. Unfortunately, EPA’s recently proposed rule to manage risks from chrysotile asbestos does just that, using one level of acceptable risk for workers and another – more protective threshold – for everyone else.

EPA says it uses a range for determining acceptable cancer risks under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the country’s main chemical safety law. The range spans a risk (or the chance that a person will develop cancer) of less than one in 10,000 to a risk of less than one in one million. EPA says this is consistent with the cancer benchmark used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

However, EPA’s proposed TSCA rule for asbestos does not actually use a range and it is not supported by TSCA. EPA instead applies a risk level to workers 100 times less protective than for everyone else!

TSCA does not support a higher risk of cancer for workers

While it’s generally accepted that there is no completely safe level of exposure to a carcinogen like asbestos, regulatory agencies usually consider risks of less than one in one million to be an acceptable risk. Risks greater than one in 10,000 generally are unacceptable. For risks that fall between these levels, agencies usually consider several factors – such as whether vulnerable populations are exposed to the chemical – to determine whether a risk is acceptable or unreasonable. However, under the proposed asbestos rule, EPA does not apply this risk range. Rather, it takes a bifurcated approach.

The agency says that a cancer risk from chrysotile asbestos of less than one in 10,000 is generally acceptable for workers, a “potentially exposed or susceptible population,” while the more protective benchmark of less than one in one million is acceptable for everyone else – consumers, the general population, and non-occupational “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations.” Effectively, EPA’s rule, if finalized, would allow a higher cancer risk for workers than everyone else.

EPA’s rationale for treating workers inequitably under TSCA is that a cancer risk of one in 10,000 is the benchmark NIOSH uses as its risk management limit. The cancer benchmark of a risk of one in 10,000 for workers was originally established in OSHA regulations in the 1970s when technology was less advanced and there were greater trade-offs between reducing exposures and jobs. NIOSH’s use of this benchmark reflects this context.

Yet, even if this were an acceptable trade-off of risk versus jobs in the 1970s, technology across our economy has improved since then. Manufacturing equipment is more effective at reducing exposure to workers. There is also greater availability of and a greater focus on less-toxic chemical substitutes. Treating the risks faced by workers equitably is not the trade-off in jobs it may have been 50 years ago. So why does EPA buy into the belief that you sign up for a higher risk of cancer when you cash your first paycheck?

Inconsistencies in EPA’s proposed approach

There is no inherent biological difference between a worker and non-worker that would justify using an acceptable risk for workers that is 100-fold less protective that for the everyone else. The only difference is that one person happens to be a worker exposed to a toxic chemical, often at greater concentrations than other groups.

In determining whether a chemical presents an unreasonable risk, EPA is required under TSCA to simply consider risk, not cost or other non-risk factors. Clearly, treating workers differently is based on cost and other non-risk factors.

What’s more, TSCA specifically identifies workers as a “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulation.” Potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations are those individuals who may be at greater risk because they are more susceptible to a chemical, such as children or frontline communities and workers that may face higher exposures. TSCA requires that they all be given explicit consideration, not less protection.

EPA’s approach would also mean the agency would apply two different levels of risk for a person exposed to a chemical both in the workplace and from its use in a consumer product.

It’s also important to note that EPA does not take this bifurcated approach to workers and the rest of the population when it considers the risks for chemicals that are not carcinogens.

And EPA did not initially use a bifurcated approach after TSCA was amended in 2016 through bipartisan legislation. Shortly after TSCA was amended, EPA under the Obama administration used a true range of cancer benchmarks for workers – one in one million to one in 10,000 – when it proposed rules to manage risks from the solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and methylene chloride. By contrast, the inequitable approach laid out in the recently proposed asbestos rule is a hold-over from the Trump Administration and its efforts to subvert TSCA.

EPA Should Equitably Consider Risks

Unfortunately, EPA has also used this inequitable approach in its TSCA risk evaluations. EPA should stop this practice. Under TSCA, EPA should use a benchmark of less than one in one million for everyone. There is no scientific reason to treat workers differently.

Risks that are considered unreasonable risks for the general population should not be considered reasonable for workers. We encourage EPA to change their approach to cancer benchmarks so that risks faced by workers are considered equitably.

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