With a long legal history, asbestos use is regulated at both the federal and state levels to help prevent exposure.
Asbestos is not banned, but it is heavily regulated by state and federal laws.
There are several key regulatory agencies, including the EPA.
Federal laws like the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) create strict restrictions on its use.
Other laws and agencies may have an impact on aspects of asbestos regulation.
Asbestos has been known to cause conditions such as mesothelioma for decades, yet it has yet to be fully banned. As a result, there has been an immense legal history involving the material, as well as many laws and regulations that have emerged to control and limit asbestos exposure.
A History of Asbestos Legislation
Attention towards the hazards of asbestos began around the 1920s and continues to be a prominent concern today. Asbestos companies began to face a series of lawsuits from workers and consumers that were exposed to asbestos through their products.
Asbestos Claims in Court
- 1920s: Dangers of asbestos became better known, but the material was still used.
- 1924: Nellie Kershaw is the first to seek compensation from an asbestos company before passing away from asbestosis. This started the movement of asbestos regulations in England in the 1930s.
- 1929: Anna Pirskowski files first known asbestos lawsuit against employer Johns-Manville Corporation. Workers’ compensation claims regarding asbestos exposure began to settle.
Widespread Asbestos-Related Claims and Concerns
- 1940s: The U.S. Navy and Maritime Commission became aware of the hazards of asbestos exposure in their shipyards.
- 1960s: The dangers of asbestos became widely known, gaining much media attention, showing a rise in asbestos-related claims being taken to court against employers that knowingly put employees at risk.
- 1966: Rule 23 of Federal Rules of Civil Procedures receives an amendment regarding class-action lawsuits, crucial to asbestos claims.
Effects of Asbestos Claims on Companies
- 1982: Johns-Manville filed bankruptcy after being forced to settle so many asbestos-related claims, the first of many companies to face a series of claims and legal settlements.
- 1988: Johns-Manville was forced to create an asbestos trust, setting aside money to pay off future claims (still prevalent today, 30 years later).
- Present: OSHA and the EPA have been regulating use of asbestos, and researchers expect a peak in mesothelioma cases around 2020. Asbestos is still not fully banned.
Federal Agencies that Regulate Asbestos
Various federal agencies are responsible for figuring out the details of federal rules, such as those that apply to asbestos.
Federal Agencies with Asbestos Regulations
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
- Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The EPA is responsible for keeping the environment clean – not just the wild outdoor spaces, but also indoor environments, water, and other factors. When it comes to asbestos, the EPA uses its authority to asbestos in schools, workplaces, air, and new products.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration / Mine Safety and Health Administration
These organizations regulate safety in the workplace, with MSHA covering mines and OSHA covering all other job sites (including factories, construction sites and office buildings). Both OSHA and MSHA set air quality levels and require employers to limit asbestos exposure.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
The CPSC oversees safety in consumer products, including products that may contain asbestos. The CPSC has specifically banned asbestos in certain products, textured paints, patching compounds and other things that can result in asbestos fibers becoming airborne.
Federal Asbestos Legislation
The federal agencies above receive their authority from bills passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.
Examples of Federal Asbestos Legislation
- Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
- Clean Air Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
- James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and Reauthorization Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
- School-related asbestos laws
- Asbestos Information Act (AIA)
- Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
First passed in 1976, the TSCA gives the EPA authority to regulate how chemicals are manufactured, used and employed, including toxic materials like asbestos. Claiming authority under the TSCA, the EPA banned asbestos in the 1980s, but that ban was challenged in court and ultimately overturned in the early 1990s. In recent years, the TSCA has been considered somewhat ineffective, and many people have called for it to be updated.
In June 2016, that update came when President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The Lautenberg Act required the EPA to review potentially dangerous substances and provide safety recommendations. In December 2016, the EPA released a list of the first ten chemicals it is reviewing, and asbestos was on that list. However, it will likely still be years before the EPA is able to complete its review and provide final recommendations on asbestos.
Clean Air Act
Congress originally passed the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955, and then eight years later updated it with the Clean Air Act in an effort to control the amount of air pollution throughout the country. The act has been revised at various times, including in 1970, 1977 and 1990.
The Clean Air Act gives the EPA general responsibility for protecting and improving air quality. To do this, the EPA establishes air quality standards for emissions and air pollutants, including friable materials such as asbestos, which can easily become airborne. The Clean Air Act specifically lists asbestos in §7412(b)(1).
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
As with the Clean Air Act, the EPA has authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to set standards for public drinking water quality. The SDWA was first passed in 1976 in an effort to update regulations around public health. It is the primary legislation that oversees drinking water quality at the federal, state and municipal levels, and it has been updated twice, once in 1986 and again in 1996.
One of the SDWA’s requirements is for the EPA to establish standards around the levels of inorganic material in drinking water. This includes natural but potentially harmful materials like asbestos.
James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act and Reauthorization Act
The terrorist attacks in 2001 spread a massive amount of asbestos around Manhattan and nearby areas. Signed into law in 2011, The Zadroga Act provides funding for first responders who have developed health issues due to their search and rescue efforts on 9/11. The act covers more than 50 different types of cancer, including mesothelioma.
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
CERCLA gives the EPA authority to require sites contaminated with hazardous materials or waste be cleaned up. These sites have been dubbed “Superfund” sites based on the name of the program established to oversee their cleanup. Several Superfund sites have been established to clean up asbestos contamination, including sites in Libby, Montana; the naval air station in Pensacola, Florida; Ambler, Pennsylvania; Fike Chemical in West Virginia; a dry dock shipyard in Tacoma, Washington; and George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.
School-Related Asbestos Laws
Over the years, Congress has passed several pieces of legislation that apply to asbestos in schools. One of these, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) required school administrators to inspect school buildings for asbestos-containing materials and to use accredited asbestos specialists when expanding, renovating or demolishing schools. In 1984, the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act provided $600 million to help schools comply with AHERA; however, that amount was not nearly enough, and additional money was authorized in a reauthorization of the act in 1990.
Asbestos Information Act (AIA)
President Clinton signed the Asbestos Information Act in 1988, requiring manufacturers to supply details about construction materials that might contain asbestos. Although the act did not do anything more than require companies to provide information, it gave the public more data about how much asbestos was being released in the marketplace. In their reports, companies had to identify the asbestos-containing materials they produced using specific characteristics, making it more difficult for them to hide the presence of asbestos in those products.
Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)
The FHSA prohibits asbestos in two specific types of products: artificial ashes and embers used in fireplaces, and general-use garments. Note that some special-use clothing is still allowed, such as asbestos fire suits worn by firefighters.
Other Asbestos Laws
Most states have their own rules and regulations with respect to asbestos. For example, most states follow the EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), while some exceed the federal agency’s recommendations for air quality.
In addition, several pieces of asbestos legislation are currently being considered by congress. One of these, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act would require settlement details of asbestos litigation to be reported publicly, which could open asbestos victims to harassment or discourage them from seeking compensation. Another, the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act would update the Asbestos Information Act by creating a publicly accessible database with details about asbestos-containing products. Although some countries like the United States haven’t fully banned the material, progressing laws and regulations offer hope towards a full asbestos ban.