When people think of toxic substances and the resulting exposure, they often may think of radon, lead or even cigarette smoke. Asbestos may not often come to mind since many assume it was banned years ago, especially when keeping in mind that the health risks were confirmed nearly a century ago. Despite this common misconception, asbestos is still legal in the United States, though not nearly as abundantly used as it was in its heyday.
While there are regulations in place through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal agencies, advocates don’t believe the laws do enough to protect the public from exposure.
Asbestos Use in America
Asbestos has a long history throughout the world, including the United States. The mineral was upheld as some kind of miracle because of its durability and resistance to both fire and most chemicals. It didn’t take long for asbestos mining to become a large industry, along with other industries finding uses for the mineral in their products, equipment and processes.
For decades, asbestos was used in a wide variety of goods like roofing tiles, insulation and brake pads. The mineral became a standard in the construction industry, shipbuilding, manufacturing and more rather quickly. Asbestos materials were suddenly everywhere, with the United States importing over 803,000 tons in 1973 at peak consumption. Even today, these heavy past uses makes it difficult to avoid asbestos-containing products in older homes, schools and workplaces.
In more recent years, the consumption of asbestos has slowed down drastically. At most recent estimates, the United States Geological Survey found we used about 340 tons in 2016, which were pretty much exclusively utilized by the chlor-alkali industry. The industry has several plants that rely on the mineral to make semi-permeable diaphragms in the chlorine making process. There are alternatives available, though these remaining plants still using the toxin have noted that it would be expensive to convert their plants and change their processes. Though chlor-alkali industry executives have stated that their use of asbestos is safe because the fibers cannot easily be released into the air, since there is no safe level of exposure advocates do not think even these isolated uses of the toxin can be considered safe.
Despite other industries no longer fully relying on asbestos, workplace exposure is still prominent because of past uses. There are regulations in place to better protect workers and the general public, but asbestos exposure is still faced by thousands each year.
There are stricter regulations in place today for how asbestos can be used, since the health risks of exposure like mesothelioma and lung cancer have been well documented. But despite legislation attempting to ban asbestos in the past, the mineral is still legal to use in the U.S., though restricted to small amounts.
Even though the health risks were apparent by the 1920s, the first step to regulate asbestos didn’t really come until 1970 with the Clean Air Act. The law was amended to include the mineral as a hazardous air pollutant, but there were still no restrictions made against its use at this point. Six years later, lawmakers passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which enabled the EPA to regulate the use and manufacture of toxins including asbestos, which seemed like a positive step in the right direction and a clear path to a ban.
Over the next several years, more laws were passed to protect the public and have stricter regulations around asbestos. Laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act set standards for inorganic material levels in water, while Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) and similar bills sought to better regulate the handling and disposal of asbestos, especially for schools.
In 1989, American finally came close to a ban on the mineral with the EPA’s issuing of the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPO). The law would have banned importation and manufacturing of asbestos-containing materials and products. This victory was short lived. Just two years later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the law. It was amended by the EPA to state new asbestos products manufactured after 1989 were subject to ABPO, and only products with a historic presence of asbestos could still use the mineral in up to 1%. This rule remains today and no new uses of asbestos are allowed.
Fighting for a Ban
It wasn’t until June 2016 that America finally saw another step towards a possible asbestos ban with the passing of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act to amend the TSCA. As part of the amendments, the EPA is required to assess a priority list of ten chemicals to determine if they post an unreasonable risk to public health and the environment, which could easily lead to a ban.
Fortunately, the priority list included asbestos and the evaluations are ongoing. Officials have released some details around the evaluations so far. Advocates were disappointed to learn that the scope of the investigation seemed to exclude historic uses of asbestos, which are far more abundant than how the mineral is utilized today. Scaling back the evaluations like this could mean trouble for a full ban on the toxin, leaving countless Americans at continued risk of exposure and the subsequent asbestos-related diseases.
There are currently at least 62 nationals that have a complete ban on asbestos, with other countries like Canada promising total bans in the near future. Most recently, Brazil, one of the top asbestos producers in the world, decided to overlook potential economic gain and ban the toxin. Many advocates have spoken out about how the asbestos industry seems to have lawmakers wrapped around their fingers. President Trump has even stated that he thinks asbestos is safe, despite all the evidence against it.
An asbestos ban feels closer than it did in the past, but with these evaluations on shaky ground in the current administration, it may still be many years and more obstacles faced before the government bans the toxin for good.