EPA Moves To Eliminate Asbestos Risk to Human Health, But Its Legacy Remains

April 20, 2022

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A recent EPA move to ban one kind of asbestos won’t fix the larger problem of thousands of tons of legacy asbestos still in the environment. Photo: Alpha, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Backgrounder: EPA Moves To Eliminate Asbestos Risk to Human Health, But Its Legacy Remains

By Joseph A. Davis

It has taken more than 50 years, and yet the job of protecting Americans from the harm of asbestos is still not done. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken a new and important step forward this year.

EPA announced this month that it intends to ban a specific kind of asbestos — called chrysotile — by regulatory action under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA.

It’s the last kind of asbestos still imported into the United States and used in commerce. The proposed EPA action would ban virtually all existing uses of chrysotile.

It’s a big deal. But it’s possible to make too much of it — if you don’t remember that the recent EPA move won’t fix the biggest asbestos problems the country still faces.


Asbestos, once in wide use throughout

the United States and other industrialized

countries, causes a form of cancer called

mesothelioma, as well as other serious ills.


Asbestos, once in wide use throughout the United States and other industrialized countries, causes a form of cancer called mesothelioma, as well as other serious ills, including other forms of lung cancer and asbestosis (a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease similar to anthracosis or black lung disease).

It’s news because it’s one of the last remaining steps in protecting Americans from existing and new uses of asbestos. Perhaps it’s also news because it’s another major advance in the de-Trumpification of the notoriously antiregulatory former president.


Trump’s asbestos reversal

Here we pause for a story. In recent years, most of the asbestos imported into the United States came from Brazil. But in 2017, Brazil outlawed asbestos (or tried to). As a result, Russia, which had previously been a minor source of our imported asbestos, suddenly had the opportunity to become a major source.

Trump thought asbestos was safe. (It’s not.) He disliked the rules against it because it cost money for real estate moguls to remove it. And perhaps also because it was coming from Russia.

After 50 years of steadily tightening laws and rules limiting its use, EPA under Trump started rollbacks that would put it into wider use again. The main remaining producer of chrysotile asbestos, a Russian company called Uralasbest, expressed its appreciation by putting Trump’s picture on its product and praising him for endorsing it.

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first EPA administrator, pushed to exclude existing uses of chrysotile asbestos (the last type still in use and imported) from regulation under the landmark 2016 revision of TSCA.

The Biden EPA’s April 2022 move on asbestos, announced by Administrator Michael S. Regan, declared EPA’s intent to reverse that direction.


A historical regulatory struggle

To appreciate EPA’s latest action, it helps to see it in the context of a long history of scientific, economic, political, legislative and regulatory struggles that go back more than a century.

Asbestos itself has been used by humans for thousands of years. But during the industrial age, it came into much wider use because of its heat- and fire-resistant properties.

The earliest inklings of its harms to health came in the early 1900s when doctors started noticing lung health problems in people who worked with it for a living. By the 1960s, the evidence of health harms from asbestos had become overwhelming.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act — the first strong mandate to help protect asbestos-exposed workers — came in 1970, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration setting its first asbestos standard in 1971.

Also helping regulate asbestos, Congress passed the main body of today’s Clean Air Act in 1970, while the Consumer Product Safety Commission was founded in 1972 and the first Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976.

EPA attempted a sweeping major ban on many uses of asbestos under TSCA in 1989 — but a court overturned most of it in 1991.

Those are just highlights. Powerful lobbies sprung up to protect industries against regulation and liability. The laws and regs have stopped most of the big historical uses of asbestos. The battle is still going on, with the main arena of contention being ongoing and new uses.


Legacy asbestos is the real problem

Despite regulation, thousands of tons of asbestos still exist in the environment. That’s the source of most of the harmful exposures today — or more precisely the historical exposures causing disease today. Many people’s basements still contain heating pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation.

Some environmental journalists may remember Libby, Mont., which was a big story in the early 2000s after a vermiculite mine there caused widespread exposure, and nearly 10 percent of the town’s population died of asbestos-related disease. It eventually became a Superfund site.

In fact, asbestos was incorporated into a wide range of building materials over many decades: insulation, floor tiles, roof coatings, siding and shingles, concrete and brick, and fireplace cement, to name a few. Mixtures of cement and asbestos have been used historically to fireproof structural steel.


Exposure to the asbestos in a wide range of

building materials is more likely to come

from demolition or remodeling work,

which produces lots of dust.


Exposure to the asbestos in these materials is more likely to come from demolition or remodeling work, which produces lots of dust. And dust control (such as spraying water) at such work sites is important not only to workers but to people living in or near these sites. Indeed, it may often be required by state or local codes.

Ongoing uses of asbestos are the major remaining battleground when it comes to regulation. Auto mechanics, for example, may be exposed to asbestos in gaskets or brake linings. The chloralkali industry (which uses asbestos to help make chlorine out of brine) is important as well — high volumes of chlorine go into many kinds of industrial chemistry.

Occupational exposure to legacy asbestos seems to be the biggest remaining hazard. Incidence of mesothelioma in the United States increased between the 1970s and early 1990s, but then leveled off to around 3,000 new cases a year. The fact that more cases occur in older men suggests workplace exposure is a major cause. Elsewhere in the world, the incidence is still rising.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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