Most U.S. citizens are aware that asbestos is a hazardous material with toxic properties making it a dangerous carcinogen responsible for causing lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural disorders like asbestosis.
Given the extreme health risks presented by asbestos exposure, it would seem perfect sense to have a complete and total ban on all asbestos-containing materials (ACM) in America.
That’s not the case, despite great efforts by dedicated people in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). With few exceptions, ACM is not banned in the United States. New asbestos products are prohibited, but existing asbestos materials are mostly controlled in the way they’re handled, contained and disposed of.
More than 60 countries worldwide have totally banned every product containing asbestos. America isn’t one of them. Although there are no more active American asbestos mines, each year thousands of raw asbestos ore tons get imported into the U.S., along with traditional building products containing asbestos. The only restriction is that ACM products must be labeled and handled according to EPA and OSHA rules and regulations.
Asbestos Ban History in the United States
Asbestos use goes back much further than when America was settled by Europeans. There’s no recorded history of America’s indigenous peoples using asbestos, but the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians were well aware of asbestos. These early cultures used asbestos to make cooking pots, tablecloths, and even funeral shrouds. These ancients were also aware of asbestos health hazards, knowing it caused the “disease of slaves” who mined asbestos.
American asbestos consumption skyrocketed during the Industrial Revolution. With steam power being so popular, asbestos was the natural material for fireproofing and insulating newly-made boilers, furnaces, and engines. Soon, ACM products showed up in building materials and consumer household products. By World War II, over 3,000 ACM products were in American ships, planes, and vehicles. Asbestos was also in factories, hospitals, schools and homes across the nation.
In the 1930s, American health authorities became aware that asbestos was carcinogenic. Evidence that airborne asbestos fiber exposure caused lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and numerous pleural disorders were known. However, asbestos production was big and profitable business. Many asbestos producers and product manufactures dismissed health warnings. Some companies hid the evidence and conspired to keep exposing innocent workers to their deadly products.
When the U.S. federal government formed the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, they mandated the EPA to do something about the growing asbestos problem scaring Americans. The EPA’s first steps were to formally identify asbestos as a known toxic substance and then attempt to remove or ban ACM products as time progressed.
These are the initial legislative steps Congress took at the EPA’s recommendation.
- Clean Air Act: The Clean Air Act of 1970, and its amendments in 1977 and 1990, first identified all types of asbestos fibers to be toxic substances. The CAA allowed the EPA to set exposure tolerance limits for asbestos but didn’t allow certain products to be identified. The CAA also allowed for the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants or what’s known as the NESHAP rules.
- Toxic Substances Control Act: This federal act of 1976 took asbestos control to another level. While no effort was yet made to ban asbestos products, the TSCA allowed the EPA to force asbestos producers and users to control packaging, handling, storing and disposing of ACM.
The EPA Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule
During the 1970s and 1980s, it was evident that asbestos exposure killed thousands of Americans and put untold others at serious health risk. The EPA worked with OSHA and the CPSC to bring in tougher rules and regulations that were outside enacted legislation by federal and state governments. The EPA took a lead role with the intention to eventually ban all asbestos products in America. They were up against great opposition from the asbestos industry, lobbyists, and unsympathetic judges.
Initially, the EPA worked on controlling ACM importing, manufacturing, sale, possession and handling. Their intent was American workers’ health protection. Public pressure on the asbestos industry and overall education from the government agencies led to a slowing demand for ACM products. This caused all American asbestos mines to close and a large number of civil lawsuits being file in courts across the land. The EPA felt the time was right and in 1989 they issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule.
The EPA, with support from many other agencies and private interest groups, intended a complete ban on all ACM products over a progressive time, which was legally possible under the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, Congress had anticipated this and included a TSCA clause requiring the EPA to use the “least burdensome means” to accomplish a big task.
The asbestos industry took the EPA to court and won. In 1991, the United States Fifth Circuit Appeal Court in New Orleans struck down most of the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule. The court viewed that a total ban on asbestos was too burdensome for asbestos companies to bear. They remanded the case back for revision. Since then, no successful move has been made on banning asbestos in America. The appellant court did allow certain products to remain banned, however, well over 90% of ACM products freely remained on the American market.
Banned Asbestos Products in America
A few specific ACM products are banned in America using upheld authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Generally, they refer to extremely hazardous products that become friable or easily dry then crumble and release airborne fibers.
Under the watered-down EPA and CPSC rules, these ACM products are on the banned substances list:
- Spray-on fireproofing and insulation materials
- Spray-applied decorative materials
- Wet-applied and pre-formed molded pipe insulation
- Block insulation for boilers and furnaces
- Spackling and joint compound
- Decorative fireplace embers
- Corrugated paper
- Commercial paper
- Specialty paper
- Flooring felt
- New uses
The new ban was one victory for the EPA. This prevented any new ACM products being invented, manufactured, imported, distributed or otherwise used in America. The EPA’s current focus is on making sure existing ACM products that aren’t banned presently as little harm as possible. Much of that includes educating workers, certifying inspectors and ensuring local authorities have the tools to safely work with the thousands of asbestos products still being used in America.
Some of the common non-banned ACM products include:
- Flat and corrugated sheets
- Asbestos protective clothing
- Automotive brake pads and clutch discs
- Roofing, ceiling and flooring materials
- Gaskets, valves, hoses, and packings
- Asbestos-cement pipes
- Pipe and duct wraps
American Asbestos Civil Litigation
Despite most asbestos products not being banned in the United States, the EPA, OSHA and the CPSC have been successful in regulating how workers deal with existing ACM. All federal agencies and their state counterparts have tough rules for safe handling asbestos during maintenance and abatement programs. These regulations are clearly posted on agency websites.