WASHINGTON – The Biden administration says it intends to ban one form of asbestos for the first time since the federal government undertook a significant reduction in toxic industrial material since 1989.
Under a regulation proposed Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use, production and import of chrysotile asbestos, a type of asbestos linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Chrysotile is the only crude form of asbestos known to be currently imported, processed, or distributed for use in the United States. Known as “white asbestos”, it is used in roofing materials, textiles and cement, as well as seals, clutches, brake pads and other automotive parts.
It would still be legal to import other types of asbestos, but companies are required to notify the EPA before importing a product known to contain asbestos fibers, and the agency has the right to refuse such imports.
Health advocates, who have been fighting for decades to ban all forms of asbestos, have called the EPA’s decision insufficient. They note that asbestos is associated with about 40,000 deaths a year in the United States. More than 60 countries and territories have banned asbestos.
The proposed rule contrasts sharply with the Trump administration, which is fighting legislation that would ban asbestos and impose policies that EPA scientists say have left loopholes for industries to continue using. Former President Donald J. Trump inaccurately declared asbestos “100 percent safe” in his 1997 book, The Art of Return, and argued that the asbestos removal movement is led by the crowd because often mafia-linked companies will do asbestos removal.
Michael S. Regan, an EPA administrator, said Tuesday that the proposed rule “will finally end” the dangerous use of asbestos.
“This historic proposed ban will protect the American people from exposure to chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen,” Regan said in a statement, adding that the agency would take other “bold, long-planned actions” to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to withstand heat, fire and electricity. It was first used in construction in the 1930s and has become ubiquitous as an insulator in schools, hospitals, homes and offices, as well as consumer products.
In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began linking it to health problems. Inhalation of asbestos fibers, even in small amounts, can cause irreversible scarring of the lungs, as well as cancer called malignant mesothelioma.
The EPA under President George W. Bush tried to ban the use of asbestos in 1989, but that effort was overturned by federal courts in 1991. However, the decision upheld the bans on new asbestos uses. As a result – and potential legal liability – asbestos use has declined in the United States.
Asbestos production in the United States stopped in 2002, but is still imported to produce chemicals used in the manufacture of items such as household bleach, bulletproof vests and electrical insulation, and automotive products.
Brazil was once the source of about 95 percent of all asbestos used in America, according to the EPA, but in 2017 it banned its production and sale. Russia has since intervened as a supplier. During the Trump administration, the Russian company Uralasbest, one of the largest producers and sellers of asbestos, posted on Facebook a picture of its packaging depicting President Trump’s face along with the words: “Approved by Donald Trump, the 45th president of United States. ”
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
An EPA official said the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration against Russia after it invaded Ukraine in February did not play any role in the EPA’s decision to ban asbestos imports.
In recent months, companies using imported asbestos, including Occidental Chemical Corporation and Olin Corporation, as well as trade groups such as the Chlorine Institute and the American Chemistry Council, have met with the White House to discuss potential EPA action.
None of the companies responded to a request for comment. Frank Rainer, president of the Chlorine Institute, which represents chlorine producers and distributors, said his member companies should review the proposed rule before commenting.
The industry believes the use of chrysotile asbestos is safe, he said. “Measures have been taken in chlorine production for many, many years,” Mr Rainer said. “It is our belief that we have used it safely and taken appropriate action.”
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The United States Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that the ban on chrysotile asbestos would have “unintended consequences” as it is used in the production of chlorine, which is used to purify drinking water. Marty Durbin, president of the chamber’s energy institute, said the EPA needed to take a “more realistic approach to asbestos regulation.”
About 300 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos were imported into the United States in 2020, according to the US Geological Survey’s Mineral Resources Summary Report. It is used almost exclusively for the production of chlorine-based products, the EPA said.
An evaluation carried out by the EPA in 2020 identified “unreasonable risks to human health” related to asbestos diaphragms, gaskets, brake pads and other products.
Restrictions on asbestos diaphragms and gaskets for commercial use will take effect two years after the date of entry into force of the final rule. The bans on brake blocks in oil fields, car brakes and brake pads for secondary markets, other vehicle friction products and other seals for commercial use will take effect 180 days after the entry into force of the rule.
Linda Reinstein, president and founder of the Asbestos Awareness Organization, said the other five forms of asbestos are just as dangerous and should be banned. She noted that one of the biggest threats is hereditary asbestos, which stems from decades of unbridled use of the product in construction, building insulation and the production of many products.
“Without a ban on all types of fiber, asbestos can still be imported into consumer products, toys and building materials,” she said.
Dr Raja M. Flores, chair of the Department of Thoracic Surgery at Icahn Medical School in Mount Sinai, New York, said he sees about 60 patients a year suffering from mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease. “Look closely enough, you’ll find the connection,” Dr. Flores said. “The school where they taught for 10 years was actually asbestos or they worked on brake pads outside their homes.
He also called for a total ban on asbestos, but called the EPA’s proposed rule a “step in the right direction”. “Having been on this battlefield for decades, I am happy that something is finally banned,” said Dr. Flores.
Michal Friedhof, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention at the EPA, said the agency intends to conduct analyzes of other types of asbestos.
Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the annual National Asbestos Awareness Week. He urged the Office of the Chief Surgeon to warn and better educate people about public health issues with asbestos exposure. Legislation that will completely ban asbestos – and which is named after Mrs Reinstein’s husband, who died more than a decade ago of mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure – has never come to the Chamber or Senate hall to vote.