Asbestos has been used in a variety of applications throughout history. Due to its heat- and fire-resistant properties, it can be found in common materials like insulation and auto parts. However, in the early 1900s, it became clear that the mineral group was dangerous to humans. When ingested or inhaled, microscopic asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen, potentially resulting in asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies have worked to ban the use of this cancer-causing mineral but have not been entirely successful. Many people assume that asbestos is already banned in the United States because the dangers of it are so well-known. But the reality is that asbestos is still used in a number of ways, posing a threat to many Americans.
History of Asbestos in the U.S.
Asbestos has been relied upon for residential, commercial, industrial, and military uses over the years. Usage of the material peaked during World War II, leaving thousands of soldiers at risk of developing life-threatening conditions, such as mesothelioma.
Many workers in factories and warehouses also faced a heightened risk of asbestos exposure. Although its dangers were known, the material was difficult to eliminate in a number of trades, and many workers faced negligent occupational exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have taken measures to keep the public safe from dangerous exposure and regulate the usage and application of asbestos in the future.
EPA Efforts to Ban Asbestos: A Timeline
The Clean Air Act (CAA)
The Clean Air Act recognized asbestos as a dangerous air pollutant. The act banned asbestos-containing uses in:
- Pipe and block insulation (boilers and hot water tanks) if the materials are either molded or wet-applied and friable after drying
- Spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing materials containing more than 1 percent of asbestos
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The TSCA banned the manufacture, importation, processing, and distribution of the following asbestos-containing products:
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Flooring felt
- Specialty paper
- All new commercial uses beginning after August 25, 1989
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
Also called Superfund, the CERCLA addressed the proper handling of asbestos at abandoned hazardous waste sites in the United States.
Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 (AHERA)
AHERA required the EPA to promote regulations requiring local education agencies to inspect school facilities for asbestos-containing materials and perform the necessary responses to prevent or reduce asbestos dangers. It also tasked the EPA with creating a plan for states to accredit people conducting asbestos inspections and remediation in schools.
Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPO)
The EPA fought to ban asbestos-containing products with the phase-out rule. Unfortunately, the ban was overturned in 1991.
Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP)
This rule regulates the demolition and renovation of buildings containing asbestos. It was initially passed in 1973 but was comprehensively amended in 1990 and continues to evolve along with other EPA rules governing asbestos usage.
Significant New Use Rule (SNUR)
Part of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, the EPA proposed SNUR as a way to control certain new uses of asbestos. The law would require manufacturers and distributors to gain EPA approval before starting or resuming the manufacture, import or processing of asbestos. SNUR would also allow the EPA to prohibit or limit the use of asbestos.
The Murray Bill
Also called the Ban Asbestos in America Act, the Murray Bill was introduced by Washington Senator Patty Murray in 2002. The ban, which amends the TSCA, was unanimously passed in the 109th Congress.
The act aims to further asbestos disease-related research and require proper labeling of asbestos-containing material. It also calls for disposal of asbestos-containing products within two years.
Senator Murray has held several hearings about the dangers of asbestos to raise awareness and provide education to the public and policymakers. She is still actively fighting for a comprehensive ban of asbestos in the United States.
The Lautenberg Act
On June 1, 2018, the EPA announced that it would be taking important steps to ensure chemical safety under the Lautenberg Act. The act further amends the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has faced scrutiny for under delivering on the regulation of harmful substances. The significant new use rule (SNUR) under the Lautenberg Act specifically addresses 10 chemicals, including asbestos. The SNUR is the first action of its kind to ever be proposed for asbestos.
This legislation would require manufacturers and importers to receive EPA approval before starting or resuming the manufacture or import of certain uses of asbestos, including asbestos-containing goods. Not only would this law provide more visibility into how asbestos is still being used in the U.S., but it would also give the EPA the control to limit or prohibit its use going forward.
“These actions provide the American people with transparency and an opportunity to comment on how the EPA plans to evaluate the ten chemicals undergoing risk evaluation … At the same time, we are moving forward to take important, unprecedented action on asbestos.” — Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator
Where Is Asbestos Still Found?
According to the EPA, the following items are still not banned from containing asbestos. However, if the Significant New Use Rule passes, these would become prohibited from future manufacture and distribution.
- Automatic transmission components
- Brake blocks
- Cement corrugated sheet
- Cement flat sheet
- Cement pipe
- Cement shingle
- Clutch facings
- Disk brake pads
- Drum brake linings
- Friction materials
- Non-roofing coatings
- Pipeline wrap
- Roof coatings
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tiles
Please note: this is not a comprehensive list of legal asbestos-containing products as of January 2019.
Asbestos Ban on a Global Scale
Many countries have pushed for regulation to abolish the use of asbestos. Iceland and Norway were the first countries to implement comprehensive bans in the early 1980s. Australia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have also issued asbestos bans. In 2018, Canada, one of the largest asbestos producers, outlawed asbestos in most cases.
The United States is feeling the pressure to follow suit and ban asbestos altogether. Supporters of a ban are hopeful that the SNUR will pass, resulting in lessened asbestos exposure and asbestos-caused disease.
Asbestos Outlook — The Future of Asbestos Usage
International agencies and activists alike recognize the need for a global ban of asbestos. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has accepted the conclusion that the “controlled use” of asbestos is a fallacy. It is a toxic substance, and the only way to end asbestos-caused disease is to completely end its usage. It is up to individual countries to protect their citizens through the ban and abolishment of asbestos.