When, Where, And Why It Was Used
Asbestos is defined as a heat-resistant fibrous silicate mineral that can be woven into fabrics and is used in fire-resistant and insulating materials such as brake linings.
Who uses Asbestos?
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. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 750 metric tons of asbestos were imported in 2018.
It may be shocking to many, especially if you are among most people who believe that asbestos was banned in the U.S. after warnings were issued in the 1970s.
It was not 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 if it accounts for less than one percent of the product.
Timeline of Asbestos Usage
1960s: Dr. Irving J. Selikoff conclusively linked asbestos to certain diseases, including mesothelioma and lung cancer, providing the evidence needed to counteract the big influence the asbestos industry held in U.S. politics. His work is largely responsible for the regulation of asbestos today. He also co-discovered a treatment for tuberculosis.
1970: The Clean Air Act of 1970 classified asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant and gave the EPA the power to regulate the use and disposal of asbestos. Spray-applied asbestos products were banned with the passage of this act.
1976: Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) provided the EPA the authority to place restrictions on certain chemicals such as asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.
1980: 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.”
1986: Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 made the EPA establish standards for inspecting and removing asbestos in schools.
1989: EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule, which planned to impose a full ban on the manufacturing, importation, processing and sale of asbestos-containing products.
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.
1991: 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 did not 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:
- Flooring felt
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Specialty paper
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.
2007: 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.
2008: 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 a 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.
Outlook for a US Asbestos Ban
When will asbestos be banned in the U.S.?
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.
Significant New Use Rule in 2018
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.
Potential New Uses for Asbestos Subject to SNUR
- Adhesives, sealants and roof and non-roof coatings
- Arc chutes
- Beater-add gaskets
- Extruded sealant tape and other tape
- Filler for acetylene cylinders
- High-grade electrical paper
- Missile liner
- Pipeline wrap
- Reinforced plastics
- Roofing felt
- Separators in fuel cells and batteries
- Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
- Any other building material (other than cement)
World Powers Take Action Against Asbestos
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.
Notable Worldwide Asbestos Bans
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.
2003: Australia bans the use of chrysotile (white) asbestos, nearly 20 years after banning amosite (brown) asbestos. The country banned crocidolite — one of the most dangerous forms — in 1967.
2005: The European Union finalizes a ban, outlawing the import, export or manufacture of asbestos in all member countries.
2006: The United Kingdom introduces the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act, combining two previous pieces of legislation to ban all forms of asbestos.
2010: Turkey issues new regulations banning all uses of asbestos. Other Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, remain reliant on asbestos and are advocates for its use.
2018: Canada passes its Prohibition of Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos Regulations. Certain industries are allowed to temporarily continue to use asbestos products, but only in cases where no competitive substitute exists yet.