It’s a widespread but false impression that asbestos is banned in the U.S.
Many Americans may have heard that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most asbestos uses and products in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, this was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, allowing the asbestos industry to reign on.
Asbestos, when inhaled, is very dangerous. Exposure to even a small quantity of the fibrous mineral can cause diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs), and mesothelioma (a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos). Asbestos-related diseases can be treated, but not cured, and many are fatal. Up to 15,000 Americans continue to die from them every year.
That said, it’s important to understand exactly what we are dealing with and how to keep asbestos at bay.
Where Asbestos Still Lurks
Asbestos is a group of 6 fibrous minerals: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. Chrysotile is the only commercial asbestos now in use, but in the U.S., it can still be found in abundance in both residential and commercial settings.
According to federal regulations, asbestos can still be used in manufacturing, imported, processed, and distributed in materials such as cement sheet, clothing, vinyl floor tile, auto parts, and roofing materials. Most prevalent are asbestos diaphragms, used by the chlor-alkali industry to create chlorine, even though safer methods are available.
Even that doesn’t account for the millions of tons of asbestos materials that have been banned (such as pipe insulation and textured ceiling paint), but never safely removed. In many structures built before the 1990s, asbestos still remains. And when disturbed or deteriorated, these materials release asbestos fibers into the air and pose a health risk.
Why and How Is It Still Being Used?
Asbestos was once revered as a cheap, durable, heat resistant, and fireproof “miracle mineral.” It was useful in occupations such as the military, construction, auto mechanics, plumbing, welding, and firefighting. For these industries, the benefits of reinforcing buildings and products with long-lasting materials at low costs were clear.
Today, we know that the costs are actually high: Asbestos has terrible implications for industry workers’ health, and even puts the general public at risk of second-hand exposure. However, asbestos product manufacturers still reap the commercial benefits of asbestos consumption without regard for public health. This has prompted a rapid rise in asbestos litigation, which helps restrict industry use and allows asbestos victims to seek justice. However, the U.S. still receives hundreds of tons of asbestos shipments from top producers, such as Russia and China.
The EPA last year announced plans to review toxic chemicals like asbestos under the revamp of a very outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This year, under the Trump Administration, the agency narrowed the review. Until the government makes a stronger effort to join the roughly 60 countries that have banned all uses of asbestos, we must remain diligent in avoiding exposure and defending our own safety and health.