US Asbestos Panorama 2022
More than thirty years after asbestos stakeholders succeeded in overturning the US Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule it seems that the planets may once again be aligning for action to be taken on a problem that has caused more than a million cases of debilitating injuries and deaths in the US.1 With falling domestic consumption, the signing of an international agreement and the ongoing public consultation over the countrys use and misuse of asbestos, there may finally be grounds for optimism.
Despite the fact that there is no US asbestos ban, according to figures released last month (January 2022) domestic asbestos consumption fell in 2021 to an all-time low of 100 tonnes.2 Although that figure was a provisional estimate and the amount of asbestos in imported products such as brake blocks, preformed gaskets, rubber sheets and vehicle friction products remains unquantified, health and liability issues associated with asbestos use has led most manufacturers and consumers to transition to safer technologies. The stand-out sector resisting calls for change is the chloralkali industry which consumes all the countrys asbestos fiber imports.
On January 18, 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding which promised to initiate new actions on crosscutting issues including infrastructure and environmental justice.3 In the seven-page text, which was signed by the Administrator of the EPA Michael S. Regan, the participants agreed to:
continue to cooperate in promoting environmentally sound management and development as well as undertaking specific activities which contribute to the protection of human health and the environment [and] to encourage and facilitate increased cooperation, collaboration and to further amplify the importance of the interconnections of public health and healthy environments.4
The joint memorandum is evidence of the Biden administrations desire to bring the US back into line with best national practices for safeguarding the health of its citizens.
Although the US Congress has the authority to enact ban asbestos legislation, attempts to do so have, to date, not succeeded. During the 116th Congress (2019-2020), which coincided with the last two years of the Trump Presidency, there was substantial bipartisan support for a bill (H.R. 1603) intended to:
amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to prohibit the import, manufacture, processing, and distribution of asbestos or any mixtures or articles containing asbestos one year after enactment. Limited exemptions could be granted to some currently operating chemical facilities or for reasons of national security
H.R. 1603 also would authorize the appropriation of $1.5 million for EPA to enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to report on the presence and extent of exposure to asbestos.5
Unfortunately, the draft legislation was deleted from the September 29, 2020 agenda of the House of Representatives at the last minute after a disagreement over language; one source speculated that the bill floundered over the issue of asbestos-contaminated talc.6
Another route to a US asbestos ban is via EPA regulations such as were adopted in the 1980s. Unfortunately, since the ban was overturned in 1991 the EPA has shown little appetite to reengage with this issue, forcing civil society stakeholders to resort to litigation to compel the Agency to fulfill its remit to protect human health and the environment.7 Following litigation brought by Attorney Generals from ten states and the District of Columbia and environmental, health and activist groups, the EPA reached a settlement on October 12, 2021 which committed the Agency to adequately evaluate all the human health risks posed by asbestos. Evidence is currently being received from stakeholders who have until February 14, 2022 to submit their comments. The fact that the EPA has agreed to expand the scope of its investigations and to review risks to citizens posed by exposure to all types of asbestos fibers including chrysotile (white) asbestos as well as asbestos legacy uses by December 1, 2024 are positive developments and mark, said one commentator, a win for environmental and public health groups. 8
It is hard to fathom how the US government could continue to fail its population by refusing to address a hazard which is present throughout the countrys schools, public buildings and domestic properties. Since the EPA ban was overturned, an additional 310,000+ tonnes of asbestos have been imported into the US in addition to an unknown quantity of asbestos-containing building and automotive parts. Citizens have paid with their health and sometimes their lives for the governments impotence.
One recent commentary on the situation concluded as follows:
The future of the asbestos ban in the US is still uncertain. Representatives from Congress and other government leaders frequently speak about safeguarding our children and advancing environmental justice, but while raising awareness is good, action is more valuable. To do both, it is necessary to prioritise public health before private profit, address legal loopholes, and implement a full asbestos ban urgently.9
In December 2021, President Biden recommitted his administration to tackling the climate crisis, to create clean, healthy, and resilient communities, to advance environmental justice and equity, and prioritize the purchase of sustainable products.10 The use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products is incompatible with that agenda. One can but hope that President Biden, the EPA and the US Congress agree.
February 9, 2022
1 Leyva, M. Could the United States Legally Ban Asbestos Forever? February 2022.
2 USGS. Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022 Asbestos. January 2022.
Consumption of asbestos in the United States has decreased during the past several decades falling from a record high of 803,000 tons in 1973 to approximately 520 tons or less in each year since 2017.
Kazan-Allen, L. October 11, 2011: A Blood Anniversary. October 11, 2011.
3 U.S. EPA and WHO partner to protect public health. January, 30 2022.
4 WHO & EPA. MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING FOR COOPERATION ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH AND PROTECTION BETWEEN THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. January 18, 2022.
6 Povtak, T. Congress Fails to Vote on Asbestos Ban Legislation. October 7, 2020.
7 Environmental Protection Agency. Our Mission and What We Do. Accessed February 8, 2022.
8 Erickson, B.E. US EPA to strengthen asbestos risk evaluation. October 14, 2021.
9 Leyva, M. Could the United States Legally Ban Asbestos Forever? February 2022.
10 FACT SHEET: President Biden Signs Executive Order Catalyzing Americas Clean Energy Economy Through Federal Sustainability. December 8, 2021.