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History of Asbestos Ban
While asbestos is still legal in the United States, many people don’t know that at one point it was outlawed. Yes, that’s correct. For a brief time in U.S. history, an asbestos ban was in place.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted an asbestos ban on July 12, 1989. The ruling banned “most asbestos-containing products,” according to the EPA website. For a few years, the U.S. was leading the world and other advanced countries in the fight to eliminate asbestos.
However, the ban was short-lived. In 1991, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana, overturned the EPA’s ruling.
Bans were in place for the following asbestos-containing products:
- Flooring felt
- Roll boards
- Corrugated, commercial or specialty paper
Asbestos was already a staple of many applications, though, including construction of buildings, electrical wiring, insulation, automobile parts, military ships and aircraft, and more. The Court’s appeal left open the possibility of continuing to use asbestos for these purposes.
There are more than 60 first-world countries with bans on asbestos. The U.S. is still not one of them.
Rise and Fall of Asbestos
During the 20th century, asbestos was a mainstay in American culture. Advertisements and commercials promoted it as a magic mineral, manufacturers pursued it as a cheap ingredient to protect their properties and assets, and many workers handled it regularly without any sort of protective gear covering their hands, face, mouth, nose, or other skin.
Not until the 1970s and 1980s did the scientific community uncover the dangerous nature of asbestos. Around this time, the general public and many blue-collar workers began developing mesothelioma from decades of regular exposure.
The combination of cancer diagnoses and scientific proof of asbestos’ dangers led to lawsuits against the companies that pushed asbestos to the forefront of daily American life. These lawsuits led to companies finding alternatives, which phased out many applications.
While most industries have moved on from the era of asbestos, the mineral remains legal and there are loopholes for it to resurge.
Imports of Asbestos Steady After a Drop
The U.S. import of asbestos has dropped since its peak in the 1970s. However, it has stabilized in recent years, signaling a continued reliance on asbestos for one particular industry.
The only industry still using asbestos is chlor-alkali production. Chlor-alkali chemicals are used for water treatment. There are only 10 chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. still using asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. The use of asbestos diaphragms has been steadily declining as well.
Recent Attempt to Ban Asbestos: Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2020
The most recent attempt to ban asbestos is the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2020. The bill was titled House Resolution 1603. It was originally written and proposed in 2019 as the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019.
The Act proposed to ban the mining, manufacturing, importing, processing and selling asbestos and asbestos-containing products for commercial gain. The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act gave companies a timeline to find alternatives to asbestos. Chlor-alkali companies had a 10-year adjustment window.
There are two additional noteworthy aspects of the bill:
- It would ban the manufacturing of amphibole asbestos, which is found in attics and other insulation areas for old buildings. It is not yet regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This type of asbestos, found and mined in Libby, Montana, caused thousands of mesothelioma deaths in the town and elsewhere in the country.
- It would initiate a study of “legacy” asbestos, which refers to asbestos found in older 20th-century buildings. This form of asbestos puts residents, office workers, school teachers, students, construction workers, electricians and others in harm’s way.
In November 2019, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 47-1 in favor of sending the bill to the House floor. If the House approves the bill, it’ll move to the Senate. Around 150,000 people signed a petition asking the House of Representatives to pass the bill.
Downfall of the Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2020
In September 2020, the bill reached the agenda of a U.S. House of Representatives meeting.
Unfortunately, the bill was pulled from the agenda moments before the meeting started. There were numerous explanations as to the derailing of the bill, but the conclusion was differences between the parties in some language in the proposed law.
Despite some attempts to rewrite the bill, the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act did not immediately resurface in committee meetings or make it back to the House’s agenda.
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Other Attempts to Ban Asbestos
There have been other recent attempts to ban asbestos. These never had as much traction as the Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2020, but they symbolize sincere efforts to protect American residents and workers.
States Sue the EPA
In 2019, a group of states allied together to pressure the EPA to enact a ban. Along with California, the states pushing the EPA for stronger regulation on asbestos were Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. The District of Columbia, which has its own attorney general as of 2014, is also part of the lawsuit.
New Jersey Bans Asbestos
While the U.S. hasn’t banned asbestos, one state took action for itself. In 2019, New Jersey passed a total ban of asbestos. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill, titled A4416, into law on May 10, 2019.
The bill specifically outlaws the “sale or distribution of products containing asbestos,” according to the New Jersey state government website. There is a $2,500 fine for each violation.
Why the U.S. Should Ban Asbestos
Asbestos is a natural mineral found in the earth’s soil. When intact and sturdy, asbestos is harmless. It’s a dependable and strong substance that adds fire-proof durability to floor tiles, roof shingles, electrical wires, automobile gaskets and brake linings, household appliances, siding, paint and more.
Asbestos is also a carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. When asbestos is unstable and disturbed, sharp strands break apart and float weightlessly in the air. These strands are dangerous, as people can inhale or ingest (swallow) them without realizing.
Protecting the public from the risk of cancer is the reason why asbestos should be banned – and that reason is more than enough.
How Asbestos Causes Cancer
Once inside the body, the pointed ends of the fibers can puncture tissue linings. If they are not dislodged and evicted from the body, the fibers can cause genetic changes to the cells in these tissue linings. This can lead to mesothelioma, a cancer caused solely by asbestos irritating tissue of the pleural cavity, peritoneal cavity or pericardial cavity.
Asbestos can also cause lung cancer, ovarian cancer, esophageal cancer and other types of cancer near the abdomen. The mineral can also cause asbestosis, a deadly noncancerous disease defined by lung tissue scarring.
There are around 2,500-3,000 diagnosed cases of mesothelioma each year. Another 10,000 or so people are diagnosed with asbestos lung cancer. Add up the other cancers and asbestos causes close to 20,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. each year.
Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos was in household appliances, such as toaster ovens, hairdryers, oven mitts, wall sockets, dishwashers and more. However, the main use was in occupations and jobs that many American workers held for decades.
Some of the at-risk occupations for asbestos exposure were:
- Construction and insulation workers
- Military veterans
- Shipbuilders (particularly for the U.S. Navy)
- Railroad workers
- Factory and plant workers
- Pipefitters and plumbers
- Automobile mechanics
- Hairdressers and Hair stylists
During the 20th century, asbestos was an everyday aspect for many workers in these jobs.
Recent Progress in Banning Asbestos: EPA Proposal
The EPA recently proposed a ban of chrysotile asbestos in the United States. This is the first attempt by the EPA to ban asbestos since the enacted ban in the 1980s. The EPA claims chrysotile asbestos is the only type still imported into the country.
Chrysotile asbestos is the most common type of the mineral. It’s also the type most often causing mesothelioma cancer.
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 and follows a timeline:
- 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.
The EPA’s proposal does not count for the other five types:
- Amosite asbestos
- Crocidolite asbestos
- Tremolite asbestos
- Actinolite asbestos
- Anthophyllite asbestos
While the EPA’s proposal is not a total ban of asbestos, it would prohibit the use of the most common type. 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.”
Sources & Author
- Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Federal Register Notices. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/asbestos-ban-and-phase-out-federal-register-notices. Accessed: 12/07/2022.
- The Ban Asbestos Finish Line is in Sight — This Petition is Going to the Congress on August 7. Change.org. Retrieved from: https://www.change.org/p/u-s-environmental-protection-agency-ban-asbestos-in-the-us-now-without-loopholes-or-exemptions/u/27373756. Accessed: 07/31/2020
- Current Asbestos Bans. International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. Retrieved from: http://ibasecretariat.org/alpha_ban_list.php. Accessed: 11/20/19.
- AG Healey Leads Multistate Lawsuit Against EPA for Failing to Require Asbestos Reporting Needed to Protect the Public. State of Massachusetts. Retrieved from: https://www.mass.gov/news/ag-healey-leads-multistate-lawsuit-against-epa-for-failing-to-require-asbestos-reporting. Accessed: 07/08/19.
- States sue EPA for tougher regulation of asbestos. The Hill. Retrieved from: https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/451189-states-sue-epa-for-tougher-regulation-of-asbestos. Accessed: 07/05/19.
- Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved from: https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2021/mcs2021.pdf. Accessed: 02/09/2021.
- The Weekly Leader. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. Retrieved from: https://leaderarchive-hoyer.house.gov/floor-resources/the-weekly-leader?page=1. Accessed: 02/17/2023.
- Assembly, No. 4416. New Jersey State Legislature. Retrieved from: https://pub.njleg.state.nj.us/Bills/2018/A4500/4416_R1.PDF. Accessed: 05/14/19.
- Governor Murphy Takes Action on Legislation. State of New Jersey. Retrieved from: https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562019/approved/20190510a.shtml. Accessed: 05/14/19.
- 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/newsroom/press-releases/pr-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.