The United States is one of the few major industrialized nations without an asbestos ban in place. It continues to be used in gaskets, friction products, roofing materials, fireproofing materials and other products that are used every day.
More than 50 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and all 28 countries of the European Union, have banned the use of asbestos.
But the U.S. continues to import and use asbestos with no plan for stricter regulations in place.
It may be shocking to many, 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.
We now know for certain that all forms of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and other chronic respiratory conditions.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that government agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were created to limit exposures to asbestos and other toxic pollutants.
Although it is highly regulated in the U.S. today, asbestos continues to be used in hundreds of consumer products as long as it accounts for less than one percent of the product.
Dr. Irving J. Selikoff conclusively linked asbestos to certain diseases, including mesothelioma and lung cancer, in the 1960s, providing the evidence needed to counteract the big influence the asbestos industry held in U.S. politics.
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.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the following legislation regulating the use of asbestos was implemented.
To date, the ABPR remains the best attempt at a federal ban of asbestos. Unfortunately, the legislation was short-lived. The ABPR ignited a fierce counterattack from the asbestos industry. Critics of the rule said the ban would lead to “death by regulation” and pointed to job loss and economic consequences.
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Asbestos product manufacturers filed a lawsuit against the EPA in the landmark case 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 George H.W. 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, which was the day the EPA announced the ABPR.
The EPA determined that six categories of asbestos-containing products fit that classification, including:
Only spray-applied asbestos and these six products are banned in the U.S. All other uses of asbestos, such as automotive brake pads and gaskets, roofing products, and fireproof clothing, are legal.
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State Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., first introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act in 2002, which originally aimed to totally ban asbestos in the U.S.
In 2007, the bill (also known as the Murray bill) passed the U.S. Senate, but died in the U.S. 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 (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) 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 the asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, could be legally sold as could asbestos-contaminated talc obtained from a mine in upstate New York.
The Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act was introduced to Congress on Sept. 15, 2008, and it aimed to amend TSCA to ban more types of asbestos-containing products.
However, 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 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 the Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act.
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When will asbestos be banned in the U.S.? The future of a comprehensive asbestos ban remains unclear.
Pushback from the asbestos industry and politicians motivated by their own self-interests continues to stand in the way of potential legislation.
In 2016, EPA officials took a step in the right direction for a federal ban by adding asbestos to the top 10 chemicals for priority action under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.
As an amendment to the decades-old TSCA, the Lautenberg Act grants the EPA more leverage against hazardous chemicals. Adding asbestos to the priority list under the act puts the notorious carcinogen up for review by the agency.
However, anti-asbestos advocates fear the review may not go in their favor under new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who dodged questions about a future asbestos ban from Democrats on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) in early 2017.
“Prejudging the outcome of that risk evaluation process would not be appropriate,” Pruitt wrote in a 252-page document answering questions from the EPW.
The EPA released a preliminary public summary of the state of asbestos in the U.S. in February 2017. Under the reformed TSCA, risk evaluations for asbestos and the other nine substances on the priority list must be completed by December 2020 — within three years of initiation.
The EPA announced a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) for asbestos on June 1, 2018.
SNURs require manufacturers to notify the EPA before chemical substances are used in new ways that might create concerns.
Internal EPA emails revealed EPA policy analyst Sharon Cooperstein said the proposal in its current form may allow companies to use asbestos in certain cases without review.
The EPA intends to finalize the rule by the end of 2018.
Critics of the SNUR say it could lead to more cases of asbestos exposure despite an apparent increase in regulation.
Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator in the EPA’s chemical safety office, told ABC News the policy adds more oversight to asbestos uses that are currently not ongoing, but also not illegal.
“We’re really closing the door on those uses that are not happening now, but there’s nothing preventing them from starting,” Beck said. “If somebody wanted to start doing it there’s nothing preventing them. So we wanted to sort of look at the whole landscape and make sure that if anyone started a use we would be able to evaluate it.”
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.
In 1999 and 2010, IBAS 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.
Since 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) has fought for a worldwide ban in an effort to combat the growing number of mesothelioma cases and other asbestos-related diseases. In 2013, the WHO introduced a global action plan aiming to end asbestos use in the organization’s 190 nations and states by 2020.
Iceland was the first country to ban all types of asbestos in 1983. Dozens of countries have followed suit, leaving the U.S. as one of the only world powers without a comprehensive ban of the carcinogenic mineral.
Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers. Read More