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The U.S. Asbestos Ban That Wasn’t

asbestos banMy sister Laurie Kazan-Allen, a global anti-asbestos advocate based in London, just reminded me that July 12 marked the 25th anniversary of the asbestos ban that wasn’t. On that date in 1989, the EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule.

In 1981, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had requested information from American companies regarding the asbestos content of their products. The result was the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. This was a common sense response to a lethal hazard that endangered public health. All types of asbestos fibers are known to cause fatal illnesses in humans.

However, in 1991, thanks to the efforts of the asbestos industry lobby, this rule was vacated and remanded (no longer exists and sent back) by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. As a result, most of the original ban on the manufacture, importation, processing, or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered in the 1989 final rule was overturned. The case was Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir. 1991). This ruling which overturned a sane and sensible law leaves many consumer products still legally allowed to contain trace amounts of asbestos.

As a direct consequence of the appellate decision, a further 250,000+ tons of asbestos was used in the U.S. just between 1991 and 2010, according to data from the United States Geological Survey reported by Laurie in the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat newsletter.

Wikipedia clearly states, “The United States remains one of the few developed countries that hasn’t yet fully banned asbestos.” Despite several attempts by members of Congress to ban asbestos through legislative means, no ban has been adopted.

Examples from the EPA’s own website of asbestos-containing products not banned:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Clothing
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Cement pipe
  • Automatic transmission components
  • Clutch facings
  • Friction materials
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Brake blocks
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Roof coatings

For me, this is a sad anniversary as I think of my clients who have died as a direct result of asbestos exposure. My firm often achieves awards and settlements of huge sums of money for asbestos victims because money seems to be the only thing that the companies responsible care about. While money helps balance the scales of justice, it does not compensate for the loss of a human life. And these companies continue to place no value on that.

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