Fighting for a U.S. Asbestos Ban

Many people think asbestos was banned years ago, but it's still used in approximately 70% of the world today, including the United States.

Key Points

  • 1

    At least 60 countries have already banned asbestos, with more committing to a ban.

  • 2

    Certain products with historic use can still contain up to 1% of asbestos in the U.S.

  • 3

    The EPA tried to ban asbestos in the 1980s, but the ban was overturned.

  • 4

    The Lautenberg Act is helping to pave the way toward a future ban in the U.S.

The fight to ban asbestos has been going on for decades, and it’s a battle many don’t realize is still occurring. While there have been attempts in the past to ban the toxin in the U.S., none has been successful so far. Asbestos is regulated to protect consumers and workers, but many believe the restrictions aren’t enough. Until a ban is in place, millions of people are still at risk of exposure and developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Attempts to Ban Asbestos

By the 1960s, researchers had proven that asbestos could cause mesothelioma, so federal agencies began to take steps to better regulate the mineral. In the 1970s, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began work to regulate asbestos better and protect people from exposure.

The first step in the right direction came in 1970, when the Clean Air Act was amended to include asbestos on its list of hazardous air pollutants. In the 1970s, OSHA also began to establish regulations to protect workers, which became more strict with time. The EPA gradually gained more authority to better regulate toxins like asbestos, but only a few laws actually came close to laying out a plan for a full ban of the toxin.

1970: Clean Air Act amended to include asbestos as hazardous air pollutant.

1976: The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) passes, giving the EPA the power to regulate how toxins like asbestos are manufactured, used, and disposed.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) sets standards for inorganic material levels in drinking water.

1980: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) establishes Superfund sites, allowing the federal government to oversee cleanups of these sites that have been contaminated with hazardous materials

1989: The EPA issues the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPO), which would have banned the importation, manufacturing and sale of asbestos-containing products.

1991: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule. The EPA did not appeal the ruling, though later received clarification that asbestos-containing products that were not manufactured, imported or processed on July 1989 (when ABPO was issued) are subject to the original ABPO rule. That ruling continues today as no “new uses” of asbestos are allowed.

Throughout the years, it’s clear not much progress toward an actual ban has been made. All of these bills and other asbestos regulations passed over the years helped keep the presence of asbestos down, but that only does so much for public safety. The reality is that millions of people are still being exposed to asbestos today. Because of the nature of these diseases, it takes decades after exposure for symptoms to show. Estimates say at least 20 million Americans will develop mesothelioma in their lifetime. A ban could help change those statistics.

Progress Toward an Asbestos Ban

Since 1991 when the bill that would ban asbestos was overturned, there really hasn’t been much progress made toward a ban. In 2002, Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act. It was repeatedly blocked in Congress, until 2007 when an updated version passed unanimously through Senate.

The bill, also known as the Murray Bill, would have prohibited the importation, manufacturing, and distribution of asbestos. Unfortunately, again the bill couldn’t make it beyond the House of Representatives even after it became more water downed throughout the process.

It wasn’t until June 2016 that advocates saw a step in the right direction when former President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act to amend the often criticized TSCA. The new act established a lot of promising changes to the TSCA

Promising Changes to the TSCA

  • Required safety reviews of chemicals currently on the market
  • Required safety reviews of new chemicals before they can reach the market
  • Grants the authority to regulate a chemical based solely on its health and environmental risk, which addresses the limitations the EPA faced in regulating asbestos
  • Sets enforceable deadlines for these reviews and recommendations of needed action
  • Removes the requirement of choosing the “least burdensome” regulations for industry, though the EPA still must analyze cost factors to help guide their decisions
  • Increases transparency around chemical information for the public

In general, the Lautenberg Act gives the EPA the authority and a clearer path to ban toxins that pose a great health risk to the public at an expedited pace. The new act required the EPA to put together a priority list of ten chemicals to evaluate first by December 2016. In late November, the EPA released their list, which thankfully included asbestos.

The risk evaluation for these chemicals must be completed within three years, and will determine if the chemicals present an “unreasonable risk” to the public and the environment. If their evaluation determines a chemical poses such a threat, the EPA then has two years to mitigate the risk as they see fit, which could mean a ban.

In June 2017, the EPA released scoping documents on each of the ten chemicals to give an update on some of their research so far. The asbestos scoping document explained the EPA is not examining any legacy uses of asbestos or its disposal, which includes asbestos materials in old buildings and older products because they are not currently being manufactured.

Though the scoping document is not meant to be extremely detailed or give a lot of insight into the investigation so far, it revealed many interesting facts on asbestos and its use in the United States.

Takeaways from the EPA’s scoping document

  • Asbestos has not been mined in the United States since 2002
  • In 2016 alone, 314 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos was imported into the U.S.
  • 100% of the imported asbestos as used by the chlor-alkali industry for the chlorine and caustic soda production process
  • A typical plant in this industry uses about 5-25 tons of asbestos each year
  • 36 facilities reported 25.6 million pounds of friable asbestos waste was managed in 2015
  • Asbestos in the air varies, but is typically 10 times higher in cities than rural areas
  • Drinking water can contain minute amounts of asbestos, which puts those consumers at a greater risk of exposure
  • Malignant mesothelioma cases are increasing, especially among those 85 years old and older

Though the Lautenberg Act is promising and gives hope for the future, it will still take years to potentially reach a ban and there are obstacles looming ahead that could halt such progress.

Challenges Ahead

With the Trump administration in place, the EPA is on shaky ground. Advocates worry over President Trump’s past comments on the safety of asbestos, as well as the choice of leader for the EPA. Scott Pruitt had sued the EPA many times in the past, raising concern that he could derail many environmental efforts.

The new administration’s proposed budget also caused a lot of concern. In early drafts, the EPA’s budget would be cut by an astonishing 31%, which would reduce its budget to about $5.6 billion. While that sounds like a lot of money, it would push the EPA’s budget back to the smallest it’s been in about four decades. This cut would mean the loss of over 3,000 jobs and would terminate many important projects and programs.

In addition to these proposed budget cuts, proposed legislation could also stand in the way of an asbestos ban. The Regulatory Accountability Act, labeled by some organizations as the “License to Kill Bill,” was introduced to Congress in early 2016 and has already passed the House of Representatives. In essence, the bill would create numerous hurdles for proposed rules in healthy and safety, as well as the environment.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would include:
  • Continuous agency studies on potential alternatives for any proposed regulations
  • Determining the most cost efficient alternatives for the industry, which goes against the risk-factor determination established by the Lautenberg Act
  • Limits on the science agencies could utilize in making these decisions
  • More administrative hearings on these proposals, ultimately causing delays
  • Granting a judge the ability to second guess any expert opinions
  • Congress must approve all rules

Essentially, this act would readily block federal agencies from establishing new rules, even if it benefited public health and safety. This bill would basically restore the hurdles the Lautenberg Act finally eliminated, and make banning or regulating toxins like asbestos nearly impossible. If it passes, this would be a huge setback to consumer safety, especially in a time where Americans are calling for more regulations and increased enforcement of laws to keep us healthy and safe.

Progress Around the World

While the U.S. still faces many hurdles in its fight, more countries are on their way to implementing stricter regulations or a complete ban on the toxin. Notably, Canada plans on implementing a full ban by 2018, which advocates hope will put more pressure on the United States to follow in their steps.

So far, over 60 countries have banned the toxin, but there’s still a long way to go before we reach a global ban.

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Medically Reviewed By A/Prof. Tom John A/Prof. Tom John

Dr. Tom John is a medical oncologist, associate professor, and senior clinical research fellow at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.