Many industries once used asbestos in a wide range of products, from insulation to fire retardants. It is now understood that exposure to this dangerous mineral can lead to fatal diseases, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.
In this context, public health advocates and environmental groups keep insisting on the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still needs to close a couple of loopholes that continue to allow asbestos to find its way into people's lungs.
Constructors and manufacturers have used asbestos since the industrial revolution to insulate buildings and ships. The mineral was also used to make ceiling and floor tiles, car brake and clutch parts, roofing shingles, textiles, and various other items.
During the early twentieth century, mounting data suggested that breathing asbestos led to lung scarring. Asbestos fibers breathed in can stick to mucus in the throat, windpipe, or the lungs’ breathing tubes. Some fibers reach the lungs’ small airways’ ends or enter the lung and chest wall’s outer layer. These fibers irritating lung and pleural cells can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.
As asbestos-related mesothelioma and lung cancer became better known in the mid-1950s, authorities implemented measures to limit exposure, including laws prohibiting its use in construction materials and introducing exposure standards. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) from 1976 provided the EPA the authority to position restrictions on chemicals like asbestos.
Asbestos imports and usage decreased significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, and alternative insulation materials have been discovered. As a direct consequence, asbestos exposure has fallen dramatically. Asbestos, however, is still used in some items and can be found in older buildings, water pipelines, and other places.
In comparison, since 2005, the European Union has prohibited asbestos use, albeit the restriction did not mandate the removal of asbestos that had already been installed. In other nations, however, asbestos is still widely used.
It's estimated that more than 40,000 American workers die each year from asbestos exposure, and thousands more suffer from severe lung diseases, facing a lifetime of pain; yet asbestos is not banned.
People can still be exposed to asbestos in the workplace, even though its use has decreased. Consumer and automobile products, cosmetics, toys, and construction materials can all still contain asbestos.
Although making some progress in banning asbestos, the US still hasn't fully regulated the use of this dangerous mineral.
When the last asbestos mine closed in 2002, asbestos mining was outlawed. Because asbestos mining is no longer permitted in the United States, all asbestos must now be imported.
It is still permissible to import and use small amounts of asbestos. Due to the lack of a comprehensive ban, several products can still legally contain up to 1% asbestos.
Sheet gaskets, aftermarket automobile brakes, brake blocks, other gaskets, and friction goods are asbestos imports. The US imported twice as much raw asbestos in 2018 as it did in 2017 to support the manufacture of chlorine and caustic soda at 15 chemical plants that are outliers in their sector for failing to convert to cost-effective and safe non-asbestos technology. In 2019, the chlor-alkali industry used almost 100 metric tons of raw asbestos imported into the US.
In 2019, the EPA issued a new regulation intended to make it more challenging to domestically manufacture, import, or sell products made with asbestos.
The rule improved the EPA's authority to examine and prohibit the use of a broad list of asbestos products that aren't banned but have been abandoned by the industry for a long time. The decision was made as part of a legal process that compels the EPA to examine its asbestos regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Despite being stricter than the initial proposal — which was widely criticized — in 2018, the agency's decision still falls short of asbestos environmental groups and anti-asbestos supporters' demands for a complete ban.
In 2020, a federal court in California ordered the EPA to amend its chemical data reporting (CDR) rule, probably leading to a mandatory requirement for manufacturers and processors to report on their imports, uses, and processing of asbestos.
The court ruling was for two cases:
- Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization v. Wheeler, brought by several NGOs
- California v. USEPA, brought by several state attorneys general
Each suit appealed the EPA's denial of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization's citizens' petitions under TSCA section 21. The lawsuits asked the agency to amend the CDR or adopt a new rule supplementing the CDR and eliminating reporting exemptions naturally-occurring asbestos and imported articles that contain the substance.
The ruling came after the court rejected the EPA’s argument that voluntary reporting and data modeling was sufficient.
In February 2021, EPA asked a federal judge to walk back his order requiring the agency to revise its CDR rule to add asbestos reporting to the program. This request sparked criticism from environmentalists.
Consequently, on June 7, 2021, the EPA and the plaintiffs in the cases filed a stipulation and order informing the federal district court for the Northern District of California that they had settled.
The EPA agreed to start a regulatory process to require asbestos reporting under Section 8(a) in a way that solves the court's information-gathering shortcomings found in the December 2020 decision.
The agency agreed to sign a proposed action within nine months and a final step within 18 months. The court approved the stipulation and order the same day.
Exemption for chemicals in articles. The EPA's asbestos risk evaluation document overlooked several goods known to contain asbestos, including cement products; felt; clothing; yarn and thread; cords and string; compressed asbestos fiber jointing paper; woven or knitted fabric; millboard; asbestos paper; crocidolite footwear; asbestos articles for use in civil aircraft; accessories and headgear; window caulking; wallboard and floor tiles; adhesive mastic; recycled asphalt shingle scrap; pads for ATVs and scooters; gaskets for motorcycles.
Exemption for impurities. In the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization petition, they cited research regarding the presence of asbestos contamination in makeup, crayons, and other talc-based children's toys, raising the possibility that thousands of talc-based consumer products that are asbestos-contaminated could be entering the US.
The exclusion for processors. The CDR only requires manufacturers to submit reports. The court ruled that TSCA required processors to report their data to the EPA in an unambiguous manner. The court determined that the EPA's claim that it already collects all reasonably accessible information on processing from manufacturers via a legal form and voluntary information submissions is unfounded.
The court ordered the EPA to make significant revisions to its CDR rule regarding asbestos reporting to remedy these vulnerabilities.
In its decision, the court said the groups’ original petition accurately described how little information the EPA has about the quantities of asbestos-containing products in the US chain of commerce and the overall consumer and occupational exposure for downstream uses of asbestos.
Even the agency's Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (Sacc) questioned the adequacy of the risk evaluation, the court said. The court's opinion makes it evident that the EPA lacks basic information on asbestos exposure and danger. It has no plausible reason for failing to exercise its TSCA reporting power to close these glaring knowledge gaps.
Asbestos protection and safety measures for workers
In the past, the EPA overlooked many sources of asbestos exposure and underestimated the toll the substance has on human health. When the EPA completes the second assessment related to uses of asbestos, it will expand its scope to address not only the safety of workers in the chemical, chlor-alkali, oil, construction, manufacturing, and automotive industry, as it resulted from the risk assessment from 30 December 2020, but also:
- Legacy uses (asbestos used in construction or manufacturing and still in place in existing buildings, factories, and other workplaces.)
- Take into account all six types of asbestos fibers (actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, chrysotile, and tremolite.)
- Health risks of asbestos in talc products.
- Exposure of vulnerable subpopulations, such as workers who do not speak English
- Uses that were reasonably expected but not included in the first assessment.
Even though loopholes are soon to be closed, individual enterprises and employers still need to use asbestos handling best practices to ensure that their personnel are not exposed. OSHA has enacted laws to safeguard workers from harmful airborne particles. Building owners and construction employers must comply with the following requirements:
- Conduct air sampling to determine the amounts of asbestos in the air and discuss the results with their staff.
- Use respiratory protection such as HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) respiratory masks and vacuums if necessary.
- Monitor and examine individuals working in an asbestos-contaminated environment should be monitored and examined.
Under the EPA's Clean Air Act, employers must also follow certain procedures. Before repair or demolition, for example:
- Worksites must be thoroughly assessed.
- If asbestos-containing materials are detected, the owner or operator of the renovation must notify the appropriate state agency.
- Contractors must produce a plan for removing the dangerous items.
The EPA agreed to complete the second assessment by Dec. 1, 2024.