US finally moves to ban asbestos, decades after other developed nations

It would be an understatement to say it has been a long time coming, but it has finally happened – sort of. The United States hasn’t gone as far as imposing a complete ban on the importation and use of all types of asbestos, which is what the UK did back in 1999. It has, however, announced a ban on the only form of asbestos that is currently used or imported into the US.

This move was set out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than three decades after its previous failed attempt to ban the substance. Bans have already been imposed on the carcinogenic mineral in more than 50 countries.

With asbestos having been linked to approximately 40,000 deaths a year in the US – from serious conditions such as mesothelioma and lung cancer – it seems that the EPA has recognised the urgent need to impose tighter restrictions on the material in the 2020s.

Only “white” asbestos is being banned – and firms have up to 12 years to stop using it

To the disappointment of some – who fear that industries might attempt to switch to using other, potentially more hazardous forms of asbestos – the newly announced ban only applies to chrysotile asbestos (also known as “white asbestos”). Furthermore, sectors that are still relying on white asbestos will have a window of up to 12 years to phase out its use.  

This reflects a ban that, in the words of University of Nevada medical geology professor Brenda Buck, constitutes a “bit of a baby step” in the broader drive to end the use of asbestos in the US.

According to the EPA, white asbestos is still used by American companies for the manufacture of vehicle brakes, as well as the production of chlorine – which, in turn, is used to purify drinking water.

A very slow movement towards banning asbestos – and the outlook remains uncertain

It took until the 1980s for campaigns against asbestos to truly gain momentum in the United States, when schools began to remove the substance from their buildings due to health fears.

As long ago as 1989, the EPA tried to ban asbestos, after finding conclusive evidence of its risks to health. However, a federal court struck down this prohibition two years later, ruling that the agency had failed to find the “least burdensome alternative” for businesses that depended on asbestos, as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Congress did take a further step towards making an asbestos ban possible by removing the “least burdensome” reference from the TSCA text in 2016. However, when President Donald Trump entered office in 2017, efforts to ban asbestos in the US stalled.

With Mr Trump aiming to return to the Oval Office after this autumn’s US presidential election, there are fears that the country may be left waiting much longer for a full asbestos ban. The former The Apprentice host has made pro-asbestos statements in the past, including in a 2005 testimony to Congress, when he described it as “the greatest fireproofing material ever made”.

Whatever comes to pass in the years to come, campaigners for asbestos safety in the US can at least take some solace from the EPA’s latest announcement.

To learn more about our own asbestos services at Oracle Solutions, and to request your free and fast quote, please don’t hesitate to contact us.