The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a ban of chrysotile asbestos, which the agency said is the only type of asbestos still imported to the United States. This is the first major step toward a total ban of asbestos since the U.S. House of Representatives pulled a proposed bill banning asbestos from the House agenda in 2020.
The news is not only significant but also timely. This week is Global Asbestos Awareness Week. The U.S. Senate also recently passed a resolution designating this as Asbestos Awareness Week.
While the EPA’s proposal is not a total ban of asbestos, it would prohibit the use of the most common type of the mineral. EPA Administrator Michael Regan called this “an important step forward to protect public health and finally put an end to the use of dangerous asbestos in the United States.”
Up until 2020, the primary importer of asbestos to the U.S. was Brazil. The South American country banned asbestos, though, and Russia became the primary importer of the mineral. Approximately 300 metric tons of asbestos were imported to the U.S. in 2020. The 2021 amount is not yet known.
Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos is the only proven cause of the rare cancer known as mesothelioma. This cancer forms in the mesothelial linings, which are around the heart, the lung cavity and the abdominal cavity.
Approximately 2,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with this cancer. The prognosis for most patients is 12-16 months, as the cancer evolves into many microscopic tumors that spread rapidly to nearby organs such as the lungs, heart and large intestines.
Asbestos also can cause lung cancer and ovarian cancer, among other deadly health conditions. Many people exposed to asbestos and later diagnosed with mesothelioma can file legal claims against the companies that exposed them.
Chrysotile asbestos is called “white asbestos.” It is the only subtype of serpentine asbestos. It is long, curly and layered. Chrysotile asbestos has been used for decades to strengthen construction materials, textiles and cement, along with gaskets, clutches and brake pads for automobiles.
Up until the 1980s, use of chrysotile asbestos was common for building schools, homes, offices, entertainment venues, hospitals and more. Most people exposed and later developing mesothelioma were put at risk through their occupations, usually handling mixtures that included asbestos.
The mineral was used for roof tiles, siding, floor tiles, electrical sockets, electrical wires, insulation and more. Asbestos could protect these building components from heat and fire.
Many old office buildings, schools and homes feature “legacy asbestos” and may expose people due to deterioration or renovation work.
Details of EPA’s Proposal to Ban Asbestos
The proposal is the first risk-management rule under the new process for evaluating and addressing the safety of toxins such as asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was enacted in 2016.
The EPA’s decision is a contrast to the stance the agency took as recently as 2016, when an independent scientific panel blasted the agency for being too lackadaisical regarding asbestos restrictions.
The EPA’s risk evaluation in 2021 ignored talc, which can mix with asbestos and expose people via talcum powder products such as cosmetics or baby powder. Johnson & Johnson faces thousands of lawsuits due to the relationship between asbestos and talc.
The EPA seemed to turn a corner in the middle of 2021 with news that the agency would let the public know when a product contains asbestos. This was a reversal from earlier protocols where the EPA kept this information private.
The EPA reports chrysotile asbestos is found in asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automobile brakes and linings, vehicle friction products and other gaskets. The EPA’s banning pertains to these six uses.
The ban timeline for each of the six uses are as follows:
- Asbestos for diaphragms and sheet gaskets will be outlawed two years after the date of the final rule.
- Asbestos for oilfield brake blocks, automobile brakes and linings, other vehicle friction items and other gaskets will be banned 180 days (approximately six months) after the date of the final rule.
Other uses of chrysotile asbestos are mostly for the chlor-alkali industry. Most other uses of asbestos have been phased out due to public awareness and legal consequences for the corporation at fault.
Chlor-alkali chemicals are used for drinking water treatment and other operations. The EPA reports only 10 chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. still use asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. One plant will close in 2022. The EPA reports the use of asbestos diaphragms “has been declining and these remaining plants only account for about one-third of the chlor-alkali production in the country.”
Other Types of Asbestos Not in EPA’s Proposal
There are six types of asbestos, with chrysotile asbestos being the most common.
The other five types of asbestos are:
- Amosite asbestos
- Crocidolite asbestos
- Tremolite asbestos
- Actinolite asbestos
- Anthophyllite asbestos
The EPA’s ruling does not account for these five types – only chrysotile asbestos. While the potential banning would end most existing uses due to chrysotile asbestos being the most common, the agency’s decision might be a step too short for some activists.
“Without a ban of all fiber types, asbestos can still be imported in consumer products, kids’ toys and building materials,” Linda Reinstein, president and founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, is quoted in a New York Times article. Reinstein’s husband died of mesothelioma in 2006.
She added that legacy asbestos is the most pressing issue needing to be addressed, which is true. However, the EPA cannot ban legacy asbestos since the toxin already has been put to use.
According to Penn Medicine, which is affiliated with the top-ranked Abramson Cancer Center, “Chrysotile asbestos is the cause of most cases of mesothelioma.”
History of Attempts to Ban Asbestos
The proposal would reinstate the EPA’s 1989 ban on asbestos, which was overturned in a 1991 court decision. The updated TSCA allows the EPA to limit and even ban the use of chemicals that pose an unreasonable risk to the public.
Asbestos is banned in more than 60 countries. The U.S. is the only first-world nation without a ban on the toxin. In the latter half of 2020, the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act passed a House Committee vote and seemed destined for an approval by the full House. However, last-minute changes to the bill led to disagreements and ultimately the downfall of the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act.
There remains a glimmer of hope the bill will return to Congress. There is no official news of the proposed law on either the House or the Senate’s agenda in 2022.
Sources & Author
- EPA Proposes to Ban Ongoing Uses of Asbestos, Taking Historic Step to Protect People from Cancer Risk. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-proposes-ban-ongoing-uses-asbestos-taking-historic-step-protect-people-cancer-risk. Accessed: 04/06/2022.
- Tester, Daines Bipartisan National Asbestos Awareness Week Resolution Passes Senate. Jon Tester U.S. Senator for Montana. Retrieved from: https://www.tester.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=9005. Accessed: 04/06/2022.
- E.P.A. to Propose Restrictions on Asbestos. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/05/climate/epa-asbestos-ban.html. Accessed: 04/06/2022.
Sources & Author