WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has said it intends to ban a form of asbestos, the first time the federal government has moved to significantly restrict the toxic industrial material since 1989.
Under the regulation proposed Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency would ban the use, manufacture and importation of chrysotile asbestos, a type of asbestos that has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Chrysotile is the only known raw form of asbestos currently being 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 gaskets, clutches, brake pads, and other auto parts.
Other types of asbestos would still be legal to import, but companies must notify the EPA before importing any products known to contain asbestos fibers, and the agency has the authority to deny those imports.
Health advocates who have been fighting for decades to ban all forms of asbestos called the EPA’s decision insufficient. They point out that asbestos is linked to an estimated 40,000 deaths a year in the United States. More than 60 countries and territories have banned asbestos.
The proposed rule marks a stark contrast to the Trump administration, which fought legislation that would ban asbestos and imposed a policy that the EPA’s own scientists said left loopholes for industries to continue using it. Former President Donald J. Trump incorrectly stated that asbestos is “100 percent safe” in his 1997 book, “The Art of the Comeback,” claiming that the movement to eliminate asbestos “was led by the mob, because Often it was mafia-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”
Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, said Tuesday that the proposed rule will “finally put an end” to the dangerous use of asbestos.
“This historic ban proposal would protect the American people from exposure to chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen,” Regan said in a statement, adding that the agency will take other “bold and long-overdue steps” to protect Americans. of toxic chemicals. .
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to resist heat, fire, and electricity. It was first used in construction in the 1930s and became ubiquitous as insulation in schools, hospitals, homes, and offices, as well as in consumer products.
In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to link it to health problems. Inhalation of asbestos fibers, even in small amounts, can cause irreversible scarring of the lungs, as well as a cancer called malignant mesothelioma.
The EPA under President George HW Bush tried to ban the use of asbestos in 1989, but federal courts struck down that effort in 1991. However, the ruling retained the prohibitions against new uses of asbestos. Because of that, and possible legal liability, asbestos use has declined in the United States.
Asbestos production in the United States stopped in 2002, but it is still imported to produce chemicals used in the manufacture of items such as household bleach, bulletproof vests, and electrical insulation, as well as automotive products.
Brazil was once the source of about 95 percent of all asbestos used in the United States, according to the EPA, but in 2017 it banned its manufacture and sale. Since then, Russia has stepped in as a supplier. During the Trump administration, the Russian firm Uralasbest, one of the largest producers and sellers of asbestos, posted an image of its packaging on Facebook that featured President Trump’s face along with the words: “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.” the United States. ”
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
An EPA official said sanctions imposed by the Biden administration against Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February had no bearing on the EPA’s decision to ban asbestos imports.
In recent months, companies that use imported asbestos, including the 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 possible EPA action.
Neither company responded to a request for comment. Frank Reiner, president of the Chlorine Institute, which represents chlorine producers and distributors, said his member companies should review the proposed rule before commenting.
The industry considers the use of chrysotile asbestos to be safe, he said. “There have been measures on chlorine production for many, many years,” said Mr. Reiner. “We believe we have been using it safely and taking appropriate action.”
About 300 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos were imported into the US in 2020, according to a United States Geological Survey mineral commodity summaries report. It is used almost exclusively to make chlorine-based products, the EPA said.
A 2020 evaluation by the EPA found “unreasonable risks to human health” associated with asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake shoes, and other products.
Restrictions on asbestos diaphragms and sheet gaskets for commercial use would take effect two years after the effective date of the final rule. Bans related to oilfield brake shoes, aftermarket auto brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets for commercial use would go into effect 180 days after the rule takes effect.
Linda Reinstein, president and founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the five other forms of asbestos are just as dangerous and should be banned. She noted that one of the biggest threats is legacy asbestos, stemming from decades of rampant use of the product in construction, building insulation and the manufacturing of many products.
“Without a ban on all types of fiber, asbestos can still be imported into consumer products, children’s toys and building materials,” he said.
Dr. Raja M. Flores, chairman of the department of thoracic surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said he sees about 60 patients a year with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. “Look closely enough, you will find the connection,” said Dr. Flores. “The school they taught for 10 years actually had asbestos, or they were working on the brake pads out of their house.”
He also called for an outright ban on asbestos, but called the EPA’s proposed rule a “step in the right direction.” “After being on this battlefield for decades, I am happy that they are finally banning something,” said Dr. Flores.
Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention at the EPA, said the agency intends to test for the other types of asbestos.
Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution recognizing Annual National Asbestos Awareness Week. Urges the Office of the Surgeon General to better warn and educate people about public health issues related to asbestos exposure. Legislation that would completely ban asbestos, and named after Ms. Reinstein’s husband, who died more than a decade ago of mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure, never came to a vote in the House or Senate. .