By Anna Suarez, an environmental advocate focused on raising awareness about asbestos and public health.
Summary: Asbestos use in the United States is not a topic at the forefront of the public’s focus, but one that still affects Americans today. By addressing the history of this mineral’s use we can better understand current conversations about environmental policy.
Most Americans know that asbestos poses a significant risk to public health, even if they don’t entirely understand why. In fact, many people are likely to incorrectly tell you that asbestos has been banned in the United States for decades. The surprising reality is that asbestos products are not banned in the United States, which remains one of the few developed countries to continue its use. Even with current regulations, it’s still possible to encounter asbestos fibers in homes and public buildings.
The World Health Organization (WHO), as well as many countries around the world, recognize asbestos as a human carcinogen and have taken several steps in recent years to address the issue. As an agency of the United Nations, the WHO plays an active role in campaigning against asbestos and educating member nations about the preventable health risks associated with exposure to the mineral.
The three most common asbestos-caused illnesses are lung cancer, asbestosis (a chronic respiratory condition), and mesothelioma, which involves the formation and growth of cancerous tumors in the linings of organs, including the lungs and heart. Together these three diseases represented 107,000 occupational asbestos exposure mortalities in 2004, and this doesn’t take into consideration deaths from other, less well-known illnesses caused by asbestos, such as laryngeal and ovarian cancers, and non-occupational exposures. In a majority of cases, it could be decades before symptoms associated with any of these diseases arise. For example, it can take up to 50 years for mesothelioma to present itself, and even once symptoms show, this cancer is very difficult to diagnose and treat.
With everything we know today about asbestos and the risks it poses, it may be difficult to understand why the mineral was utilized in the first place. The construction and manufacturing industries loved asbestos and used it in thousands of building materials and consumer goods, mainly because it was cheap, durable, and great at resisting high heat and chemical reactions. These properties enabled the widespread use of asbestos in everything from insulation and tile mastic to crock pots and fireproof clothing. Consumer goods containing asbestos tended to have a shorter life-span, making them less of a long-term risk to people. Conversely, asbestos-containing materials that were installed in buildings may still be present and continue to pose a risk of exposure.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1970 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was able to legally regulate asbestos, specifically the use of spray-on asbestos products. In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed, which allowed for additional restrictions on the mineral’s usage and eventually became the basis of a failed phase out of asbestos products in 1989. The ban was challenged in the courts, and eventually overturned after two years based on a lack of sufficient evidence required by the TSCA. Today, this has left the United States with a series of patchwork regulations aimed at limiting asbestos use. Only certain asbestos-containing materials have been formally banned, and up to one percent of asbestos is still allowed in newly-manufactured products that are not included in these regulations.
More recently, Congress has passed an amendment to the TSCA known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. This piece of legislation is specifically aimed at easing the impossible burden of proof required by the original TSCA document, and will hopefully lead to effective bans on known human health hazards. In late 2016, the EPA formally announced the first ten chemicals that would be examined under the Lautenberg Act, one of which was asbestos. Since then, a scoping document was released detailing the procedures for examining asbestos as a human health hazard.
It may be difficult to believe the amount of time it has taken to get to this point, despite having scientific consensus regarding the detrimental effects of asbestos on human health. With a new process in place to evaluate dangerous chemicals, the United States may finally catch up to its global peers and ban asbestos. The likelihood of this is fairly low, however, considering the shifting goals between the previous and current administrations, as well as the exclusion of several key aspects of addressing asbestos, such as legacy uses. Even if a ban is passed, there will still be asbestos-containing materials lingering in both public and privately owned buildings. This means the average citizen must still be aware of their surrounding environment in order to avoid any potential sources of exposure.