The EPA is trying to ban asbestos—again

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, has so far escaped all attempts at a blanket ban.
Environmental Protection Agency
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC. Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed on Tuesday a ban on “white asbestos,” the most common form of the toxic, carcinogenic mineral still used in the United States. 

Asbestos is resistant to heat and fire, making it a once-popular building material found in older homes, schools, and other structures around the country. White asbestos, also called “chrysotile asbestos,” is the only form of asbestos that’s currently imported into the US. The proposed rule would ban all manufacturing, processing, importation, and commercial distribution of the material in the major categories of products where it’s still used, including gaskets, automotive brakes and linings, and other vehicle friction products. The EPA says this asbestos ban would cover all of its current uses in the United States.

The EPA attempted a blanket ban on asbestos once before, in 1989, but the rule was struck down in a 1991 federal appeals court decision. In the years since, more and more data revealed the mineral’s detrimental health impacts, leading many builders and manufacturers to transition to less hazardous alternatives. Though not banned, asbestos is highly regulated, including at state and local levels. Asbestos mining in the US stopped in 2002. Nevertheless, asbestos still kills tens of thousands of people in the US every year, and so a formal ban would be monumental. 

“Every country around the world that has either banned or reduced asbestos has seen a fall in disease and death,” Philip Landrigan, the director of Boston College’s global public health program, told The Washington Post. While asbestos exposure is dramatically less common than it was before 1989, for a few professions, like firefighters and maintenance workers who spend a lot of time in old buildings, it remains a significant threat, he said.

While public health researchers applauded the EPA’s proposal as a good and necessary move, some experts say it is not enough. The proposed rule only covers chrysotile asbestos—the other five forms of asbestos, though less common, are still actively used in the US. A comprehensive ban on all asbestos types needs to reach Congress, Bob Sussman, counsel to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and a former Obama EPA official, told Politico

“Without legislation, current and future exposure to asbestos fibers that have the same lethal properties as chrysotile will continue,” Sussman said. “Congress can put a stop to this exposure by banning all six asbestos fibers now.”

[Related: PFAS are everywhere—and the EPA has a new plan to fight back]

Although 70 countries have some form of asbestos ban in place, in the US, the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that has remained unchanged for more than 40 years, makes it difficult to ban harmful chemicals. According to the AP, President Obama once said the US chemical system under the act was “so complex, so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.”

But not everyone wants a blanket ban on asbestos. Among the biggest protestors of this proposed rule is the chlorine industry: About one-third of US chlorine plants use chrysotile asbestos in the production process. The American Chemistry Council said in a statement that banning asbestos would impact public health by “reducing the domestic supply of chlorine which is vital to protecting the safety of the nation’s drinking water supply.” Yet the other two-thirds of chlorine plants already manage to get by without asbestos, using alternate technology.

Tuesday’s proposal will be open to public comment for 60 days, and the Biden administration aims to finalize it by November. The legal deadline for the ban, if enacted, will be December 1, 2024.