Getting rid of asbestos, Part 1

When I raise the issue of banning the use of asbestos, the most common response I get is: “Isn’t asbestos already banned?” 

They are surprised with the answer: No, asbestos is not banned in the U.S., though it is in at least 60 other countries, including Canada.

Proposed EPA ban on asbestos 

In April 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a ban on the use and import of one type of asbestos – chrysotile – the type of asbestos that accounts for 95 percent of all asbestos ever used in the U.S.

The other commercial types of asbestos – at least as hazardous as chrysotile – were not named in the ban, mainly because EPA does not believe that the other asbestos types are in products used or imported into the U.S. In 2020, the U.S. imported 300 metric tons (about 660,000 pounds) of raw chrysotile asbestos. This raw asbestos is used in only one industry - the chlor-alkali industry, which makes chlorine and caustic soda.

The EPA believes that limited amounts of asbestos are also found in sheet gaskets, brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes, other vehicle friction products and other gaskets imported into the U.S.

Truthfully, we do not really know much about whether asbestos is used in or contaminates products imported into the U.S., because we do not test the many, many products imported from other countries.

Some countries, such as Russia, China and India, still use a lot of asbestos, though whether they export asbestos-containing products is an open question, especially in view of the fact there are so many countries with an outright ban on asbestos.

Some imported consumer products in the U.S. have been found to contain or be contaminated with asbestos.  Without a ban, this practice will continue.

The proposed EPA ban follows a thorough risk evaluation process that was completed in December 2020, finding “unreasonable risks to human health from conditions of use associated with six categories of products,” that is, the product categories named above. (Note: I was on the scientific review committee that advised EPA on this risk evaluation.)

Does the chlor-alkali industry still need to use asbestos? No.

For many years, the industry has been growing the use of an alternative membrane technology that does not employ asbestos. The asbestos-using diaphragm technology is only used in nine old plants in the U.S., and only accounts for one-third of chlorine and caustic soda production.

The industry has been moving away from the use of asbestos for many years and could completely end the use of asbestos in the foreseeable future, as required under the EPA ban. In Europe, for example, asbestos use in such facilities will end no later than 2025.

Proposed Congressional ban on asbestos

Even better than the EPA ban would be a complete ban of all types of asbestos in the U.S. by Congress.

The proposed EPA ban, if adopted, would be a regulation and will most likely be challenged by industry, tying it up in court for years and delaying its enforcement.

Courts vary greatly in their opinions, making outcomes uncertain.

On the other hand, a national law banning all types of asbestos would be far more definitive and less subject to industry challenge.

Such a law was proposed in May 2022, when the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2022 was introduced in Congress. It would “amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to prohibit the manufacture, processing, use and distribution in commerce of commercial asbestos and mixtures and articles containing commercial asbestos and for other purposes.”

This legislation would cover all six asbestos fibers (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite), as well as Libby Amphibole. It would also achieve other goals:
• Transition chlor-alkali plants to non-asbestos technology within two years.
• Establish mandatory asbestos reporting obligations for companies importing and using asbestos. 
• Develop an educational outreach program to support full compliance with the ban.

Who would be better than Insulators and their families to weigh in on the terrible burden of illness and death caused by asbestos used in the past, and the need to close the door on all asbestos use in the future?

Let your Congressional representatives know how you feel!

Steven Markowitz, MD, DrPH, a physician specializing in occupational and environmental medicine, directs the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment and is a professor of environmental sciences at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY). The Insulators Union has been working with Dr. Markowitz for many years and appreciates his expertise on issues that matter to our industry and our members.
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