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EPA Promotes Asbestos Rules Changes Despite Objections From Its Own Scientists and Lawyers

Letting a carcinogen into consumer products?: When Environmental Protection Agency officials opened a door in June for the possible approval of new asbestos-containing consumer products, they did so against strong objections from the agency’s own scientists and lawyers, reports Lisa Friedman of The New York Times. Most developed countries have banned asbestos, a carcinogen once commonly used in fireproofing and building materials. The U.S. still allows limited uses, including in roofing materials and sealants. Now the EPA has proposed changes it says will tighten oversight. But those changes have prompted consumer groups — and, according to internal emails, agency staff — to question whether they will actually make it easier for new products to enter the market without oversight. “The new approach raises significant concerns about the potential health impacts,” Sharon Cooperstein, an EPA policy analyst, wrote in one of the emails.  The proposed changes were announced in June, when attention on the EPA was mostly focused on the ethics scandals of former agency administrator Scott Pruitt. The news puts into perspective those images you may have seen going around on social media, posted by Uralasbest, the owner of a massive Russian asbestos mine. The photos show pallets full of what look like building materials stamped with President Trump’s face and the words, in Russian, “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.”

  • Also: Trace asbestos was found in green Playskool crayons, and testing on other back-to-school products discovered concerning chemicals in other brands.
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A big hit for Monsanto in court: The Environmental Protection Agency has said that glyphosate, the main ingredient in certain weedkillers, including Monsanto’s Roundup, is not likely carcinogenic to humans. The World Health Organization says it likely is. Now a California jury has ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages to school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, who used the weedkiller regularly and says it caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While the debate about the herbicide’s safety rages on, Monsanto, recently acquired by Bayer, says it will appeal the decision. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 lawsuits filed across the U.S. make similar claims against the product. Bayer stock fell more than 10 percent Monday. Emails released during the case showed how far Monsanto has gone to to shape public opinion about safety. FairWarning reported in 2016 about a science-for-hire firm that produced a study, paid for by Monsanto and other glyphosate producers, that found no dietary risk from glyphosate residues on food crops, and “no solid evidence” that exposure at ”environmentally realistic” levels could cause birth defects or developmental problems for children.

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Another chemical giant’s Achilles’ heel: A federal appeals court has ordered the EPA to ban the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that advocates say can harm farm workers, their children and consumers. The Trump administration had reversed prior plans to ban the product, but the court found there “was no justification” for that decision “in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children,” Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee reports. Proponents of chlorpyrifos have said the ban will leave farmers defenseless, though Kasler found that many seem already to be cutting back on its use, with state records showing California farmers applied less than half what they did in 2005. Dow AgroSciences is the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos.

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When are enough worksite safety violations enough?: The federal government has strict standards for preventing trench cave-ins on a job site. Yet a Texas construction company has been cited for violating those standards for the fifth time. The previous four citations all were made within 2017. This time, investigators found that El Paso Underground Construction failed to provide workers a safes means of entry and exit, failed to protect against cave-ins and did not properly train workers on how to stay safe. This, despite the fact that, as Jordan Barab points out on his blog Confined Space, trench cave-ins are deadly. Three workers died in cave-ins in the past few weeks. “So what can we do to deter companies like El Paso before they kill someone?” Barab writes. “Higher penalties, for one.” The latest citation for El Paso carries proposed penalties of $190,642. But, as Barab notes, the company has seen its fines reduced dramatically after each of the previous four violations.

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Stealing up and down: A federal judge in Kansas has ordered Brenda Wood to serve more than four years in prison and to pay $4.3 million in restitution for a series of elaborate schemes to steal from her employees and from lenders. Wood stole tens of thousands of dollars in contributions that her employees had made to retirement accounts, and she falsely accused a staff attorney and human resources manager of the crime, according to a U.S. Department of Labor press release.  She was the owner of several businesses, including a commercial cleaning services company in Kansas City, Missouri. Wood, who once tried to buy the prominent New York Life building in Kansas City, also engaged in a check-kiting scheme to inflate her accounts, and she made false statements to a bank to secure a $350,000 line of credit. Court documents list Wood’s debts as ranging from $2,000 to a former employee to $3 million to Farmers Bank and Trust, Andy Alcock of the Associated Press reports.

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Talking tough on emissions standards: California air quality regulators have proposed a plan that could force automakers to meet the state’s tough emission standards even if the federal government imposes weaker ones. The Trump administration announced this month that it would roll back an Obama-era plan for curtailing emissions and would limit California’s ability to call its own shots. The California proposal asserts that such a move “jeopardizes the successful coordinated national program for reducing these emissions that has helped position the auto industry for continued innovation and competitiveness in an international market.” The proposal is a preemptive move, in advance of what is expected to be a protracted legal battle between California and the administration, and it brings the country one step closer to a split auto market, Tony Barboza of the Los Angeles Times writes.

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The Ocean Cleanup Project: A massive mobile net designed to scoop up plastic pollution from the world’s oceans is drawing millions of dollars from investors and some skepticism from scientists. The Ocean Cleanup Project is preparing to launch a system of pipes more than five football fields in length that drag a 9-foot net designed to capture trash while directing fish and other wildlife to swim beneath it. The project in 2017 received $5.9 million in donations and reported reserves of $17 million, and it has some support from scientists who say every little bit helps, reports Elizabeth Weise of USA Today. But critics say the focus on cleaning up the plastic pollution is misguided and that attention – and money – should be spent instead on stopping the flow of plastic into the water. “If we consider cleanup to be a center stage solution, then we accept it is OK to contaminate the oceans and that our children and our children’s children will continue to clean up the mess,” said Richard Thompson of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth in England.

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A mitigation plan for the cows: Methane gas will be captured from dairy cows to offset the effects of one of the country’s largest-ever natural gas leaks, according to a $119.5 settlement announced last week. The settlement stems from an October 2015 blowout at the Aliso Canyon gas storage site in Los Angeles that leaked for more than 100 days, causing massive greenhouse gas emissions and prompting health concerns from nearby residents. Southern California Gas Company has agreed to capture at least 109,000 metric tons of methane from farms over 10 years and to fund a long-term health study, Phil McKenna of InsideClimate News reports. But the facilities that are built to collect the gas could create future leak hazards, and the existing pipeline infrastructure is known to have extensive leaks. Further developments need to be held to strict standards “so we don’t spend a bunch of money and wind up in the same place,” said Timothy O’Connor, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund’s oil and gas program in California.

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Trying to deflate vaping: A coalition of health organizations, including the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, has asked regulators to stop the sale of new vaping products that are similar to the Juul brand widely used by young people. In a letter to Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, the groups highlight several brands that they say should have been subject to premarket review by his agency, yet his agency “does not appear to be exercising that authority.” FairWarning reported in June about the appeal of such products to kids and the overall lack of regulation. Gottlieb and Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, recently outlined their plans for addressing e-cigarette use among youth, including expediting action to limit use of flavorings and increasing enforcement. “Companies should know that the FDA is watching and we will take swift action wherever appropriate,” they write.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.