EPA official pushes back on criticism of asbestos proposal

NEW YORK — Asbestos was used in many products up through the 1970s but after being linked to health concerns and liability, many manufacturers in the U.S. dropped it out of their products. It's banned in dozens of countries, but the U.S. never banned it outright. 

Now the substance is one of 10 being reviewed by the EPA that could allowed in more products. Groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are concerned that the EPA is actually moving to weaken protections and possibly make consumers less safe.

"It's really cooking the books on the level of risk that EPA is able to identify," said EWG attorney Melanie Benesh. She says the EPA won't be taking a comprehensive review and evaluating the risks of asbestos in some places like home, work and school environments.

"If you are ignoring major ways that people are exposed to a toxic substance, you may dramatically underestimate the risks," Benesh said.

In other words, Benesh is saying the EPA's evaluation may make asbestos seem less dangerous than it actually is.

EPA officials told CBS News that's not true. In a phone interview, Nancy Beck, the Trump administration appointee who oversees the agency's toxic chemical unit, told us, "The criticism just makes me sad." She added the agency is "working hard to put in place a program grounded in science" and that current EPA proposals would amount to new regulations.

"We're putting in place a hammer, a prohibition that doesn't exist today," she said.

The EPA says some manufacturers who want to apply for some new uses of asbestos under the proposed rule would need EPA approval.