Despite evidence that there is no safe level of exposure, efforts to ban asbestos in the United States have been repeatedly blocked by industry.
Many Americans mistakenly believe that asbestos was banned decades ago. Tragically, that is not the case. Although asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S. and its use has declined significantly, American industry still legally imports, uses and sells both raw asbestos and products made with it. In the 1970s, after asbestos was proved to cause cancer, federal agencies bega...
Many Americans mistakenly believe that asbestos was banned decades ago. Tragically, that is not the case. Although asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S. and its use has declined significantly, American industry still legally imports, uses and sells both raw asbestos and products made with it.
In the 1970s, after asbestos was proved to cause cancer, federal agencies began taking steps to regulate it. In 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency established an emissions standard under the Clean Air Act. A year later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an occupational standard, which grew more protective over the next decade. In 1979, EPA issued a notice of intent to regulate asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The asbestos industry and the government of Canada – at the time the source of 95 percent of the asbestos reaching the U.S. – rightly feared that EPA regulation under could lead to an outright ban. They pressured the Reagan White House to halt EPA’s efforts. Top EPA officials wavered, but prodded by career employees’ public dissent, moved forward. In 1989, after a 10-year, $10 million study that generated 100,000 pages of evidence, EPA announced it would order a phaseout and ban of more than 90 percent of products containing asbestos.
The industry went to court to overturn the ban, claiming that it was too costly and that the alternatives were neither safer nor more effective than asbestos. Though it acknowledged that asbestos in any amount caused cancer, in 1991 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit threw out most parts of the EPA’s rule, saying the agency failed to prove that a ban was the “least burdensome alternative” for controlling the public’s exposure.
This disastrous decision not only overturned EPA’s ban but also established a precedent that has made it almost impossible for the agency to ban any dangerous chemical. The administration of President George H.W. Bush chose not to appeal the Fifth Circuit’s decision. Even though new evidence of asbestos’ hazards continues to crop up, EPA’s hands have largely remained tied. Today, asbestos is banned only in less than a dozen types of products and for “new use” in products that did not historically contain asbestos.
In 2002, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., introduced a bill to ban asbestos, but industry lobbyists and their allies in Congress repeatedly blocked it. In 2007 a bill called the Ban Asbestos in America Act passed the Senate unanimously. But this legislation had been gutted in committee: instead of asbestos products, the bill that reached the Senate floor would have banned only asbestos material. The effect of this language would have been to legalize any product containing up to one percent asbestos by weight. In the end, even this watered-down bill could not get through the House and to the President’s desk.
More than 50 nations have banned asbestos, but the U.S. still permits its citizens to be exposed to a substance known to cause illness and death in any amount. As multiple scientific and regulatory bodies assert, there is no safe level of asbestos.
Meanwhile, the use of asbestos in China, India, Russia, Brazil and many other developing countries is expanding, increasing the likelihood that millions more people worldwide will die from asbestos-related diseases in coming decades.