Whenever scientists discover that a chemical utilized in the manufacturing of products is actually harmful to people who use them, they may push public health or government officials to curb use of that chemical. When it comes to an asbestos ban, I’m often left with the following question: Why hasn’t the American government banned the use of asbestos? The mineral has been tied to an increased risk of deadly diseases, including malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer, so why hasn’t the government done anything about it?
The answer is that the government did institute an asbestos ban – but the asbestos industry succeeded in pulling most of the teeth out of this ban. Not only was this disappointing for all of us at Kazan Law, but it also continues the incidence of asbestos-related diseases to this day.
Tackling the asbestos ban problem
Asbestos fibers are carcinogenic, meaning that once they enter the body and settle into the tissues, they cause changes in the cells that can lead to the development of cancer. This is especially true for the organs of the respiratory system, a fact that scientists have known for more than 70 years.
One of the earliest government actions against the asbestos industry took place in 1973, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of spray-applied asbestos material for the purposes of fireproofing or insulation. Over the next four years, this asbestos ban expanded to include wrap and block insulation for boilers and hot water tanks, artificial fireplace embers and wall patch compounds.
In 1979, the EPA announced that it was considering regulation of asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Members of the asbestos industry objected because they argued it would put people out of work. When the EPA caved in 1984 and said it would defer regulation to other government agencies, employees of the EPA protested publicly because they knew how dangerous asbestos was. This led the EPA to reverse its position.
A potential victory dies in court
By 1989, the EPA made a sweeping ban of all asbestos use after the completion of a 10-year study on the dangers of the mineral. This policy under the TSCA law would’ve curbed asbestos use by 94 percent, removing the mineral from the manufacturing of roofing materials, insulation and car brakes, and using safer alternative materials.
However, the sweeping victory was short-lived. Members of the American and Canadian asbestos industry took the TSCA asbestos ban to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in the manufacturers’ favor. Nowhere in the court’s ruling did it dispute the fact that asbestos can potentially cause cancer.
As it stands now, asbestos isn’t allowed in products such as commercial paper and flooring felt. It can still be used to make a large variety of items, including cement shingles, disk brake pads, automatic transmission components, roof coating and vinyl floor tiles.
Asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S., but our country does import more than 1,000 tons of the mineral every year.
Thus far, government efforts to control asbestos consumption in the U.S. have been gravely disappointing, but the lack of meaningful progress doesn’t mean that we should give up the fight against irresponsible industries. The Environmental Working Group encourages you to act by contacting your federal legislators and voicing your concerns about the dangers of asbestos.
On a global scale, the World Health Organization is working with various intergovernmental agencies to reduce occupational exposure to asbestos, which claims the lives of more than 107,000 people internationally every year. These efforts include educational campaigns on materials that can substitute for asbestos and support for research into the prevention and treatment of asbestos-related diseases.