The History of the Ban on Asbestos

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Which of the following statements is false?

  • A. About 10,000 people a year die of conditions related to asbestos.
  • B. In the next 12 months, about 3,000 more Americans will be diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos.
  • C. In every U.S. state, asbestos abatement and the removal of asbestos from public schools, office buildings and stores costs millions of dollars every year.
  • D. Asbestos has not been banned for use in the U.S.
  • E. None of the above.

The fact that the correct answer is "E" may surprise you, especially if you're among the majority of people who believe that asbestos was banned in the U.S. after warnings were issued in the 1970s. The truth is, however, that the United States is one of very few major industrialized nations that has not banned asbestos entirely in all of its forms. It continues to be used in gaskets, friction products, roofing materials, fireproofing materials and hundreds of consumer products that are used every day.

Anti-asbestos advocate Laurie Kazan-Allen, who is based in the U.K., as well as several occupational health specialists and other advocates around the world founded the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) in 1999. IBAS remains a leading voice in the fight to ban asbestos worldwide.

Iceland was the first country to ban all types of asbestos in 1983. There are currently more than 50 countries that have completely banned asbestos, including the countries of the European Union, which finalized a ban in 2005. The United Kingdom banned asbestos in 1999, and Australia did the same in 2003.

In 1999 and 2010, IBAS again called for an international ban on all types of asbestos. While an international ban would take a lot of cooperation between countries with opposing interests, the effort would put an end to the legacy of asbestos-related disease.

No Asbestos Ban in the US

Selikoff conclusively linked asbestos to certain diseases, like mesothelioma and lung cancer, in the 1960s, which provided the evidence needed to counteract the big influence the asbestos industry held in U.S. politics.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, legislation regulating the use of asbestos was implemented.

  • The Clean Air Act of 1970 classified asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant and gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate the use and disposal of asbestos. Spray-applied asbestos products were banned with the passage of this act.
  • In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) provided the EPA the authority to place restrictions on certain chemicals such as asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.
  • The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 (AHERA) made the EPA establish standards for inspecting and removing asbestos in schools.

During these decades, the EPA and other U.S. agencies were conducting studies to determine the safest permissible level of asbestos exposure. In 1980 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) announced, “All levels of asbestos exposure studied to date have demonstrated asbestos-related disease…there is no level of exposure below which clinical effects do not occur.”

On July 12, 1989, the EPA used its authority to issue a final regulation banning most uses of asbestos. Known as the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR), it planned to put an end to the importation, processing, manufacture and distribution of products containing asbestos.

The ABPR ignited a fierce counterattack from the asbestos industry. Supporters of the asbestos industry said the ban would lead to “death by regulation” and pointed to job loss and economic consequences.

Asbestos product manufacturers filed a lawsuit against the EPA in a landmark suit, Corrosion Proof Fittings v. Environmental Protection Agency. On Oct. 18, 1991, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban, claiming the EPA failed to demonstrate that a ban was the “least burdensome alternative” to regulating asbestos.

Guided by the first Bush Administration, the EPA didn’t appeal the ruling. It did receive clarification from the court that the ban could apply to asbestos products that were not being manufactured, processed or imported on July 12, 1989, the day the EPA announced the ban.

The EPA determined that six categories of asbestos-containing products fit that classification, including:

  • Flooring felt
  • Rollboard
  • Commercial paper
  • Corrugated paper
  • Specialty paper
  • New uses of asbestos

Only spray-applied asbestos and these six products are banned — all other uses of asbestos are legal in the U.S. Asbestos is widely used in automotive brake pads and gaskets, roofing products and fireproof clothing.

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The Murray Bill

Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., first introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act in 2002, which originally aimed to totally ban asbestos in the United States.

In 2007, the bill (also known as the Murray bill) passed the Senate, but died in the House of Representatives.

The Murray bill would have prohibited the importation, manufacture, processing and distribution of products containing asbestos in the U.S. It covered all known types of asbestos and three other durable fibers with a similar structure to asbestos. The bill also included:

  • Establishment of a network of research and treatment centers, better record-keeping of asbestos-related diseases, and additional research into the causes and cures of mesothelioma and related diseases.
  • Directing NIOSH to review the current knowledge on asbestos disease, health effects and measurement methods, and recommend areas where new research is needed.
  • Funding for public awareness programs to raise awareness of asbestos and its dangers.

The bill did not, however, ban all asbestos-containing products from use in the U.S. Among the compromises that were made to pass the bill was the removal of a sentence defining which products would be banned under the law. The deleted definition, according to the EPA, should have read "any product to which asbestos is deliberately added or used, or in which asbestos is otherwise present in any concentration."

With that sentence missing, early supporters claimed the bill no longer banned all asbestos-containing products from sale. Instead, it would have allowed the sale of products that contain asbestos if the asbestos was not deliberately added. That would mean that the asbestos-tainted vermiculite from the Libby, Montana, mine could be legally sold, as could asbestos-contaminated talc obtained from a mine in upstate New York.

Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act

The Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act was introduced to Congress on Sept. 15, 2008, and it aimed to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban more types of asbestos-containing products.

The bill died in Congress and hasn’t been presented for vote again. It would have allowed certain uses of asbestos, such as in the production of chlorine and lye. It also intended on implementing measures to increase public awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Interestingly, the act would have revised the definition of asbestos to include winchite, richterite and other asbestiform amphibole minerals. Winchite and richterite are asbestifom minerals found among tremolite asbestos in Libby, Montana, where W.R. Grace operated a now infamous vermiculite mine.

Public health advocates continue to support a full ban on asbestos, but no legislation to ban asbestos in the U.S. has come forth since Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act.

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Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at

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