01. Early U.S. Asbestos Laws
History of Asbestos Bans in the United States
Asbestos use is not banned in the United States. Asbestos mining ended in 2002 with the closing of the last U.S. asbestos mine. However, it is still legal to import and use the mineral in small amounts. Without a complete ban, many products still legally contain up to 1% of the mineral.
Advocates continue to fight for a complete asbestos ban in the United States. There are also calls to ban the mineral globally. Asbestos bans play an important role in decreasing rates of mesothelioma.
History of Diseases Connected to Asbestos
Researchers connected asbestos to disease as early as 1918. Asbestosis was one of the earliest recognized and understood asbestos illnesses. In response, in the 1930s the U.S. government began to regulate the use of asbestos to limit the development of asbestosis in workers. A series of reports from 1960 definitively connected asbestos exposure to mesothelioma.
Asbestos litigation in the 1980s revealed a decades-long cover-up by the asbestos industry. Asbestos companies consistently downplayed and ignored evidence connecting the mineral to several diseases. As a result, people today continue to develop mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos diseases.
For example, Johns-Manville knew about the dangers of occupational asbestos exposure as early as the 1930s. Executives at the company showed a lack of concern for the asbestos miners and factory workers they employed.
Other examples of companies ignoring or downplaying the dangers of asbestos include:
- In 1949, Standard Oil Company (now ExxonMobil) circulated a document admitting that asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer. The company labeled the internal document “confidential,” and continued to expose workers to asbestos for decades after this admission.
- In 1958, National Gypsum Company circulated an internal memo stating that “just as certain as death and taxes is the fact that if you inhale asbestos dust you get asbestosis.” The company continued to produce asbestos products for more than a decade after penning this memo.
- In 1964, a doctor hired by Philip Carey Manufacturing warned the company of the health hazards of asbestos. The company fired the doctor soon after receiving his report.
Companies even manipulated scientific results and attacked research papers showing the dangers of asbestos. Early efforts to regulate the use of asbestos did little to protect or inform workers and consumers of the health risks of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Regulations and Laws From the 1930s to the 1970s
The United States made early efforts to regulate asbestos while companies continued to ignore its dangers. But these laws were often ineffective in preventing exposure or holding companies accountable. Companies ignored regulations and misled regulators to avoid accountability for their actions.
U.S. Asbestos Regulations Enacted in the 1930s
During the 1930s, Congress made early attempts to regulate asbestos as its use increased across many industries. For example, regulations focused on:
- Conducting medical surveillances of workers
- Limiting exposure to workers thought to be less likely to develop an asbestos disease
- Reducing the concentration of airborne asbestos dust
In 1938, U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) published a study concluding that low levels of asbestos exposure would not cause asbestosis. Much of the scientific community accepted this study’s safe-exposure threshold for the next 30 years. During this time, Congress passed the following laws with the study’s guidance in mind:
- 1951 Walsh-Healey Act: This act adopted the USPHS exposure guidelines for federal contractors. It also set standards for equipment safety.
- 1960 Longshoremen’s Act: This act also adopted the USPHS guidelines for longshoremen.
However, researchers still recognized the limitations of this threshold for protecting human health. One USPHS doctor called the limitations “nothing but educated guesses.” In 1968, researchers recommended lowering the USPHS threshold.
Early asbestos laws and regulations did not prevent millions of people from being exposed to asbestos. Companies continued to use the mineral without warning workers or consumers of its dangers. Only in the 1970s did things begin to change.
Asbestos Regulations and Laws in the 1970s
In the 1970s, asbestos use began declining as knowledge of its risks spread and the government began calling for a ban. In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. The law helped coordinate health and safety initiatives in the workplace.
NIOSH vs. OSHA
The OSH Act created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is a research institute for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
In 1975, OSHA declared asbestos a carcinogen. It also proposed to lower the safe-exposure threshold for asbestos. Industry lobbying swayed legislators and prevented OSHA from adopting this change.
Then, in 1976, NIOSH concluded that there was no such thing as a “safe” level of asbestos exposure. The following year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also recognized asbestos as a carcinogen. In 1979, a working group at OSHA confirmed NIOSH’s and IARC’s findings.
Despite the efforts of NIOSH and OSHA, there was little success regulating asbestos in the 1970s. A lack of political will and industry pressure blocked efforts to create widespread change.
However, small changes did occur. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had early successes banning certain asbestos products during this time. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also banned asbestos-containing patching compounds and artificial fireplace ash.
02. EPA and Asbestos Regulations
What Is the EPA’s Role in Asbestos Regulations?
The EPA is a federal agency with a broad mission to protect human health, which includes regulating asbestos. The agency has passed various laws related to asbestos use. Recent legislation has also given the EPA the power to ban asbestos entirely, though as of 2023, there is still no ban.
Two major pieces of legislation established the EPA’s goal “to protect the public from adverse health effects of asbestos.” They are the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 and Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.
The CAA established the EPA’s role in regulating air pollution. The EPA has banned several asbestos-containing products using powers provided by the law, including asbestos pipe insulation and spray materials.
The TSCA gave the EPA authority to restrict and require reporting on chemical substances. The EPA also conducts its own risk evaluations under the TSCA, which can form the basis for restricting substances.
Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR)
The ABPR was the most comprehensive attempt to ban asbestos in the United States to date. In 1989, the EPA used its authority under the TSCA to issue a final rule banning most asbestos products. The rule aimed to ban future manufacturing, importation and distribution of asbestos products. But the ban did not last very long.
The asbestos industry challenged the ban in court in the lawsuit Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA. In 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned most of the ABPR.
Ultimately, the ban on products was limited to several types of paper and felt flooring. Fortunately, the ban on any new uses of asbestos survived.
Long-Standing Impacts of Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA
When the EPA enacted its ban and phase-out rule, the asbestos industry quickly organized to challenge it. The ABPR was the result of a ten-year study and sought to ban a known carcinogen. The court in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA acknowledged that asbestos is a carcinogen. But it still sided with industries that claimed a ban would be too costly.
Scholars have argued that this case called into question the EPA’s ability to regulate any cancer-causing substance. As a result of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, companies were allowed to continue to expose Americans to this dangerous mineral.
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03. Early 2000s Proposed Bans
Early 2000s Attempts at Asbestos Bans
The early 2000s saw renewed attempts to ban asbestos. One notable bill was the Ban Asbestos in America Act, also called the Murray Bill. Another bill was the Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act. Neither bill became law.
In 2002, Senator Patty Murray introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act, commonly known as the Murray Bill. The bill would have required the EPA to create a rule to ban almost all uses of asbestos in the United States. In 2007, the Senate approved the bill, but it stalled in the House of Representatives.
What Was Included in the Murray Bill?
- A provision to ban almost all importation, manufacturing, processing and distribution of asbestos
- A provision to expand research into asbestos diseases
- A provision to increase awareness of the dangers of asbestos
Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act
In 2007, Representative Betty McCollum introduced the Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act. The bill was named after a member of Congress who died from pleural mesothelioma. The bill would have strengthened the TSCA to expand the definition of asbestos and ban more products. The bill included several provisions from the failed Murray Act.
The new definition of asbestos would have included winchite, richterite and amphibole forms of asbestos. Winchite and richterite are both found in the vermiculite mines in Libby, Montana. Exposure from these mines created one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history. The bill did not become law.
What Was Included in the Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act?
- A provision to ban almost all importation, manufacturing, processing and distribution of asbestos
- A provision to establish a national asbestos-disease research and treatment network
- A provision to expand the definition of asbestos to include other asbestiform varieties
04. Asbestos Laws Today
Asbestos Laws Today: Is the United States Closer to a Ban?
In recent years, efforts to ban asbestos in the United States have intensified. For example, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act gives the EPA authority to ban asbestos. The agency is currently exploring whether this law requires them to implement a ban. It is also investigating current risks caused by past asbestos use. Meanwhile, the Senate is considering the 2022 Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act as a way to prohibit asbestos use.
Although these laws create the potential for a full ban, the United States has still not fully prohibited asbestos use. Asbestos companies still using and exposing workers to the mineral continue to lobby against a ban. They misrepresent the costs of a ban and the health risks to workers. Some have even commissioned studies downplaying the dangers of asbestos exposure.
In 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act became law. The law expands the EPA’s authority under the TSCA to allow it to ban asbestos. Lawmakers designed the law to prevent challenges to an asbestos ban like the one that overturned the ABPR.
The EPA has moved toward banning asbestos but has not yet used its authority under this law to implement a ban. The law requires the EPA to identify and assess the risks of dangerous chemicals like asbestos. This risk evaluation does not consider costs to the asbestos industry and rightly focuses on public health and safety.
If the EPA concludes that a chemical poses an unreasonable risk, it must take appropriate action to prevent the harm caused by the chemical. Appropriate action may include phase-outs and bans.
What Is Included in the EPA’s Lautenberg Act?
- A provision providing funding for the EPA to carry out its obligations under the law
- A provision requiring the EPA to perform risk-based assessments for dangerous chemicals
- A provision to increase public transparency about dangerous chemicals
- A provision requiring the EPA to take appropriate action to remove the danger to public health caused by dangerous chemicals
Significant New Use Rule (SNUR)
In 2019, the EPA issued a new asbestos rule under its TSCA authority. The SNUR, also called the April 2019 Final Rule, has proven controversial. The rule requires companies to obtain federal clearance to import and manufacture various asbestos products. Mesothelioma advocates question whether the rule could result in more asbestos products on the market.
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) claims the SNUR “falls woefully short of taking meaningful action to protect public health.”
The SNUR identifies asbestos products that companies could potentially reintroduce into the market. In theory, the EPA could allow any of these asbestos uses to restart under the SNUR.
Asbestos Uses Covered by the SNUR
- Adhesives, sealants, roof and non-roof coatings
- Arc chutes
- Beater-add gaskets
- Cement products
- Extruded sealant tape and other tapes
- Filler for acetylene cylinders
- Friction materials
- High grade electrical paper
- Missile liner
- Other building products
- Pipeline wrap
- Reinforced plastics
- Roofing felt
- Separators in fuel cells and batteries
- Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
- Woven products
Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act would prohibit the use and importation of asbestos. This bill was first introduced in Congress in 2017. Initial attempts to pass the bill into law have failed. But recent reports on the use of asbestos in chlorine plants have increased pressure to get the bill passed.
Proposed Chrysotile Asbestos Ban
In 2022, the EPA proposed a rule to ban the use of chrysotile asbestos. Chrysotile is the only type of asbestos currently used in the United States. A risk assessment conducted by the EPA found that chrysotile asbestos presents an unreasonable risk to public health. The agency says it hopes to complete the rulemaking process by November 2023.
While the proposed rule is a step in the right direction, advocates and lawmakers continue to push for a complete ban on all types of asbestos. For example, the proposed Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act is more comprehensive. It would put the United States in line with other countries that have a complete ban on asbestos.
States That Have Banned Asbestos
Some states have adopted stricter asbestos regulations than the federal government. For example, in 2019, New Jersey enacted a prohibition on the sale and distribution of asbestos products.
Other states have banned certain asbestos products to help protect consumers. In 2010, Washington state banned asbestos brake pads and shoes. States may also have their own regulations establishing fines and other penalties for certain asbestos uses in the state.
05. Asbestos Bans Around the World
Asbestos Bans Around the World
Asbestos bans currently exist in more than 60 countries. Countries that have banned asbestos include all member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), except the United States and Mexico.
The United States still imports chrysotile asbestos for use in certain industries. From 2019 to 2020, asbestos imports nearly doubled. According to the most recent data, the United States imports its asbestos from Brazil and Russia. Although Brazil technically has an asbestos ban, it has continued to mine asbestos.
Anti-asbestos advocates believe a global ban is possible. For example, one study found that following guidelines from international conventions helped countries ban asbestos. These conventions, the 1986 C162 Asbestos Convention and the 1989 Basel Convention, have not been adopted by the United States.
Notable Worldwide Asbestos Bans
- Australia: In 2003, Australia banned all forms of asbestos, as well as the import and export of the mineral. Some narrow exemptions exist for imports and exports.
- Canada: In 2018, Canada banned all asbestos and asbestos-containing materials, with certain exemptions. This came after asbestos mining ceased in Canada in 2011.
- European Union: In 2005, all the member states of the European Union banned all forms of asbestos.
- Iceland: In 1983, Iceland became the first country to ban asbestos.
- Japan: In 2012, Japan completed a long process to ban all uses of asbestos.
Countries With a National Asbestos Ban
- Czech Republic
- New Caledonia
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
The asbestos import-export trade poses a potential threat to all countries. For example, trade may result in asbestos passing through countries with an asbestos ban en route to its destination. A worldwide asbestos ban could help prevent asbestos from crossing borders.
Even without a global ban, national bans help protect the health of a country’s people. For example, a ban in the United States would protect workers who still use asbestos products on the job. Other countries have shown a ban is possible and the United States should follow suit.
06. Common Questions
Common Questions About Asbestos Bans and Laws
Is asbestos still used?
- Yes, asbestos is still used today in the United States. The chemical industry imports more than 200,000 pounds of chrysotile asbestos for chlorine manufacturing. Recent reports indicate that workers at chlorine plants still risk occupational asbestos exposure.
Was asbestos banned in 1978?
- In 1978, the EPA banned spray-applied surfacing materials that contained asbestos. This included spray-on ceiling materials, such as popcorn ceilings. The 1978 partial ban left many asbestos uses still legal. While asbestos use in the United States is limited today, the mineral is still not banned.
How many countries have banned asbestos?
- Almost 70 countries around the world have banned asbestos. This includes all member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), except the United States and Mexico, and the entire European Union (EU). American advocates and lawmakers continue to argue that a total ban is needed to protect public health.