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Chlorine production threatened by cancer risk

The EPA seeks to ban asbestos diaphragms used to produce chlorine — severe supply disruption feared
Chlorine production threatened by cancer risk Chlorine production threatened by cancer risk

In its effort to totally eliminate the use of asbestos in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed banning the substance in the production of chlorine. If the EPA’s proposal is allowed to go into effect, the result will halt at least one third of our nation’s total chlorine production.

They deem the move a “historic step to protect people from cancer risk,” as asbestos’ cancer-causing properties are well known. Formerly used in insulation and in fire prevention, its use began to be banned in the U.S. in the 1970s to prevent human exposure.

There is currently only one form of the material, chrysotile, that is still imported, processed, and distributed for use in this country. This form of asbestos is used exclusively by the chlor-alkali industry, which uses asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine. Driving the ban is the EPA’s concern for chlor-alkali worker exposure.

Asbestos diaphragms are used in the industrial process to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda). Essentially, they enable the separation of the two chemicals for further use.

The use of these asbestos

The future is here! Pictured above is the world’s first 3D fiberglass pool. The pool is by San Juan Pools of Lakeland, Florida. See story on page 11. diaphragms is among the two main ways that chlorine is produced. The other method utilizes membrane cells, which are more efficient, produce a higher-grade product, and account for nearly half of U.S. capacity.

According to the EPA, three firms own a total of 10 chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. that still use asbestos diaphragms. Although the share of total production using asbestos diaphragm cells has been declining over time, the diaphragm cells in these plants currently represent about one-third of U.S. chlor-alkali production capacity. The EPA estimates that the conversion of these plants from asbestos to membrane cells will require an investment of approximately $1.8 billion spread across all of the plants.

With the proposed complete ban (in two years) of these asbestos membranes, the EPA will create a dramatic reduction in the county’s chlorine production, with an attendant price spike built into the proposal as chlor-alkali plants scramble to convert their operations to membrane cells. The agency seems to believe that this projected shortage and price increase will be worth it, however, because of asbestos’ well known cancer-causing properties and the potential danger that it poses to the health of those who work with it in the chlor-alkali plants.

Numerous industry organizations have objected to the EPA’s proposed ban. These include major stakeholders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine Institute, and many more. The Pool and Hot Tub Alliance counts itself in this number.

That’s because an abrupt ban on the use of asbestos diaphragms would significantly disrupt the chlorine supply chain, and chlorine is a chemical that has near countless uses beyond water disinfection.

Indeed, chlorine is used in PVC, which is critical to drinking water and sewage transportation, as well as to the medical sector, where it is used in ventilators, blood bags, medical tubing, etc. It also serves as the foundation for 88% of pharmaceuticals, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Chlorine is an essential component in the energy sector, where it is used in solar panel chips and wind turbine blades. In addition, some plastic foam insulations and vinyl windows use chlorine for heating and airconditioning efficiency.

It is vital for disinfection, where it is used in the food and agriculture sector, healthcare and public health, drinking and wastewater, and of course, swimming pools and spas.

And these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. Dow Chemical has written that it will also handicap air travel, impair semiconductor manufacture, and disrupt electric car production.

For many, it is galling that the EPA makes this proposal at a time when chlorine is already in short supply and its price is currently soaring.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies stated that “A sudden prohibition of the use of asbestos technologies will almost certainly cause shortages and price increases for chlorine and other disinfection and treatment chemicals used by the water sector.” Furthermore, “cost increases in chlorine and sodium hypochlorite will be passed on to their ratepayers and may cause other vital maintenance and investment in infrastructure to be deferred.”

Meanwhile, the EPA is fully aware of the current chlorine shortages.

Within its own proposal, the EPA acknowledges “that public drinking water and wastewater systems have experienced substantial price increases for chlor-alkali products related to supply shortages and COVID pandemic impacts.” Further, it also states, “EPA has insufficient information to fully assess the impact of this proposed rule on the cost or availability of water treatment chemicals.”

However, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA must perform a “Risk Evaluation” and as such has determined an unreasonable risk of cancer to workers, nonworkers, and consumers from chronic inhalation of chrysotile asbestos.

In response to this Risk Evaluation, 156 comments were posted.

The American Chemistry Council drafted a comprehensive 88-page comment that aims to refute this and other aspects of the EPA’s Risk Evaluation.

The ACC says the EPA’s Risk Evaluation: includes inaccurate assumptions and numerical errors; does not make use of the best available science; overlooks more reliable studies; substantially overestimates exposure; is contradicted by the record; and more.

Among a few salient points the ACC makes:

• The EPA mischaracterizes the workers’ exposure duration as 40 years instead of the true 15-year employment duration.

• The EPA fails to account for the fact that as required by OSHA, workers exposed to asbestos wear HEPA-equipped respirators and other appropriate personal protection equipment at all exposure times.

• An outright prohibition of asbestos diaphragms is not needed to eliminate the minimal and already well-controlled risks posed to the fewer than 100 workers and an EPA-estimated 100 occupational non-users, such as janitors, at the plants.

Dow was also among those who commented on the EPA Risk Assessment.They stated, “Asbestos diaphragms are fully enclosed, therefore there is no exposure, and as such, no risk for humans and the environment.”

The company further stated that they manufacture chlorine in Europe, and in 2011 an EU directive also banned asbestos, so they have knowledge of the timeframe needed to convert to membrane cells.

“It is impossible to replace all diaphragms in a chlor-alkali facility in a short 2-year timeframe, such as EPA is proposing. Faster replacements will jeopardize operations,” Dow stated in their comment.

The American Chemistry Council recommends that the EPA reconsider the factors to either allow for the ongoing chlor-alkali asbestos diaphragm use or provide at least 15 years to phase out chrysotile asbestos to avoid a disruptive 2-year phaseout that will adversely impact public health, increase the costs of goods and services, and create critical supply shortages.

On April 11, the EPA posted their proposed rule concerning asbestos in the Federal Register at www. regulations.gov via docket EPA-HQOPPT- 2021-0057 for public comment.

That public comment period ended July 13, 2022. The original EPA rule and public comments may be viewed there.

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