Asbestos is still not banned in the United States.
Over 60 countries have banned the toxin already, with more committing.
Past attempts to ban asbestos in the U.S. have been overturned.
An ongoing EPA asbestos risk assessment provides some hope for a future ban.
Asbestos has a long history in the United States and around the world. Even though its health effects were confirmed by the 1920s if not earlier, the mineral was heavily used through the 1970s. Many people ask “when was asbestos banned?” in the belief that one of the many past regulations against the toxin made it illegal decades ago, especially given the serious dangers of exposure. But past attempts to ban asbestos have proven unsuccessful.
Today, the mineral can still be legally utilized in certain products with historic use, while its past uses can be found in various products, homes, schools and other buildings throughout the country. In recent years, new asbestos regulations have given advocates hope that a ban may be forthcoming, though the future of asbestos in America is on shaky ground with the current administration.
Past Attempts to Ban Asbestos
As research continued to confirm the health effects of asbestos exposure, like mesothelioma and asbestosis, regulatory agencies began to finally put laws into place to protect workers and the public from dangerous exposure. Despite health risks being realized in the early 1900s, the first big regulatory action against the mineral didn’t happen until 1970.
- 1970: Clean Air Act amended to include asbestos as hazardous air pollutant.
- 1976: The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) passes, giving the EPA the power to regulate how toxins like asbestos are manufactured, used, and disposed. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was also implemented, setting standards for inorganic material levels in drinking water.
- 1980: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) establishes Superfund sites, allowing the federal government to oversee cleanups of these sites that have been contaminated with hazardous materials
- 1989: The EPA issues the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPO), which would have banned the importation, manufacturing and sale of asbestos-containing products.
- 1991: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule. The EPA did not appeal the ruling, though later received clarification that asbestos-containing products that were not manufactured, imported or processed on July 1989 (when ABPO was issued) are subject to the original ABPO rule. That ruling continues today as no “new uses” of asbestos are allowed.
The 1989 Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule was the closest the United States has come to fully banning asbestos. Since the EPA didn’t appeal the ruling that overturned the law just two years later, many past uses of asbestos are still legal and actively utilized today, continuing to put millions of people at risk of exposure.
Other bills have popped up over the year, like the Ban Asbestos in America Act (also referred to as the Murray Bill) in the early 2000s, which would have banned importing, manufacturing and distributing asbestos. The law was continually blocked by Congress, even as the proposed regulations became more watered down over the years.
Reports have estimated at least 20 million Americans are at risk of developing mesothelioma in their lifetime, with millions more at risk of other asbestos-related diseases. Advocates around the world believe a full ban on the toxin is the only way to change these statistics and help put an end to mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.
The Lautenberg Act Gives Hope for an Asbestos Ban
Progress for an asbestos ban seemed nonexistent until 2016 with the passing of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The law amended the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that was originally implemented in 1976 and had faced much criticism for failing to properly regulate the use of chemicals and protect public health.
Lautenberg Act Amendments to the TSCA
- Required safety reviews of chemicals currently on the market and new chemicals before they can reach the market
- Grants the authority to regulate a chemical based solely on its health and environmental risk, which addresses the limitations the EPA faced in regulating asbestos
- Sets enforceable deadlines for these reviews and recommendations of needed action
- Removes the requirement of choosing the “least burdensome” regulations for industry
- Increases transparency around chemical information for the public
In line with these clear changes, the EPA chose ten chemicals to undergo risk assessments to determine their threat to public health and further regulations needed, which could include a ban. Asbestos was included in the first round of assessments, giving hope to advocates that a ban could be on the horizon.
In June 2017, the initial scoping documents of these assessments were released, giving better insight into the current uses of asbestos in the United States and how the toxin has been handled.
Takeaways from the EPA’s Scoping Document
- Asbestos has not been mined in the United States since 2002
- In 2016 alone, 340 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos was imported into the U.S.
- 100% of imported asbestos was used by the chlor-alkali industry for chlorine production
- A typical plant in this industry uses about 5 – 25 tons of asbestos each year
- 36 facilities reported 25.6 million pounds of friable asbestos waste was managed in 2015
- Asbestos in the air varies, but typically has 10 times more in cities than rural areas
- Drinking water can contain asbestos, which puts consumers at a greater risk of exposure
- Malignant mesothelioma cases are increasing, especially in those 85 years old and older
The scoping document provided valuable insight, though also explained that the assessment would not include legacy uses of asbestos, including products like building materials which still arguably pose the largest threat of exposure today. Despite this setback, advocates remained hopeful that the assessment would eventually lead to a complete ban, as any amount of asbestos exposure has proven dangerous.
The Future of an Asbestos Ban in the U.S.
Despite the promising outlook of the EPA’s chemical risk evaluations, the agency faced many changes under the Trump administration, causing concern for many advocates. Though the Lautenberg Act provided so much hope, new regulations changed the scope of the assessment.
In the summer of 2018, the EPA also unveiled a proposed asbestos regulation called the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR). The proposed rule states that manufacturers and exporters would need to seek approval from the EPA before starting or resuming the manufacture or distribution of asbestos goods. The EPA could then review the intended use of asbestos in the product and take action to limit or prohibit the use when necessary.
EPA officials released statements explaining that the rule would help protect the public from new uses of asbestos that could happen now without the agency realizing. Advocates, however, believe this rule would be a step backward and more easily allow for new uses of the toxin, putting more asbestos products on the market.
The outlook remains rather uncertain with so many factors up in the air, but the public remains hopeful of a future asbestos ban in the U.S.
- Asbestos Problem Formulation: Read the latest update detailing the EPA’s asbestos assessment as they move forward.
- Asbestos SNUR Details: Find more information on this proposed rule that could impact the future of an asbestos ban.
- The Past and Future of a U.S. Asbestos Ban: Discover more details around past attempts to ban asbestos and current regulations, and stay up-to-date on the asbestos assessment.
Asbestos Bans Around the World
Unfortunately, the majority of the world still allows use of asbestos, with the global trade even growing as countries like Russia continue to rely heavily on its export. In recent years, however, more countries that have once been among the top producers of the toxin have passed laws to ban further manufacturing, importing and exporting of the mineral.
Among the most notable recent additions, Canada and Brazil, two of the largest asbestos producers, have implemented complete bans on the toxin. Over 60 other countries have banned asbestos so far, with some other countries showing hope for a ban in the near future.
Countries With Asbestos Bans
- Czech Republic
- Korea (South)
- New Caledonia
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- United Kingdom