2023 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Toxic Burden: How American Chemical Regulations Failed the Public

About the Project

While dozens of other countries banned asbestos, the United States let two major chemical companies use the notorious carcinogen to make chlorine, in large part because they insisted they were keeping their workers safe. Regulators, lawmakers and the general public had little insight into whether that was true. Settlements were secret, inspections were limited and workers weren’t talking. As the government tried to finally ban asbestos in 2022 and the industry revisited its perennial defense, ProPublica sought to reveal, once and for all, what was actually happening to workers at these plants.

Among the findings:
* As recently as 2021, workers at a plant in Niagara Falls, New York had toiled unprotected, “swimming” in asbestos. The carcinogen floated in the air and accumulated on overhead beams and light fixtures. Industrial monitoring data showed workers were exposed. The workers said they asked for better protections over and over, but the dangers remained until the facility closed for unrelated reasons at the end of 2021. Some of the men now suffer from asbestosis and other serious lung problems. Experts called the conditions “unacceptable,” “fraught with danger,” and “like something that maybe would happen in the 1940s or the 1950s.”

* The Occupational Safety and Health Administration knew about asbestos problems in the plant, but took minimal action because the facility was part of a program for “model” workplaces.

* Since the 1980s, some of the country’s largest chemical companies have successfully fought a ban on asbestos, even though alternative technologies have been available and used worldwide, internal corporate documents show.

* For the first time, after ProPublica’s original report, workers from around the country were willing to speak out. They included a janitor at an Alabama plant who said she was given no personal protective equipment, even while pregnant, as she scraped dried asbestos from bathroom floors and a man who lost his sister to lung cancer after they both worked around asbestos for years.

* Asbestos is a case study of broader failures in America’s chemical regulatory system – a system that defers to industry, finds chemicals innocent until proven guilty and lets industry-friendly regulators twist science from inside.