Asbestos imports skyrocketed last year to an estimated 300 metric tons, according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The federal agency, which maps the landscape and catalogs natural resources, included the cancer-causing material in its Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021 report. It concluded that U.S. imports of chrysotile asbestos — the only type of asbestos still imported and utilized in the U.S. today — shot up roughly 74 percent year-over-year from the 2019 total of 172 metric tons.
That’s the largest increase since 2018, when the import amount more than doubled to 681 metric tons versus 332 in 2017, according to the annual report, which was posted Feb. 1.
Most of 2020’s imports came from Brazil, which provides an estimated 86 percent of all raw chrysotile imports, with the remaining 14 percent coming from Russia, according to the USGS.
The report noted that all of this asbestos goes to the chlor-alkali industry, which uses chrysotile to manufacture diaphragms.
Asbestos diaphragms are currently used in at least 11 chlor-alkali plants and account for roughly a third of domestic chlorine production, the report added.
Asbestos activists condemned the predicted spike in imports. The head of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), Linda Reinstein, called it “horrifying” in a joint release with the Brazilian Association of People Exposed to Asbestos.
“Each year, nearly 40,000 Americans die from preventable asbestos-related diseases,” Reinstein wrote. “There is no safe or controlled level of asbestos exposure, and management methods to reduce exposure are ineffective and endanger public health.”
“There is no safe or controlled level of asbestos exposure, and management methods to reduce exposure are ineffective and endanger public health.” - Linda Reinstein
The Chlorine Institute, a trade group representing chlor-alkali producers, did not contest the report’s findings, stating in a Feb. 10 release that it doesn’t collect such information from its members.
The USGS’s findings have some clear limitations, however, as the agency reported that it only had solid import numbers through July 2020, when the import total stood at 138 tons. This five-month gap in the estimate could seriously throw off the tally for the year, a fact the report acknowledges.
“Final 2020 imports may differ significantly from the provided estimate because chrysotile imports typically do not follow a predictable pattern throughout the year,” the report noted.
The USGS report added that along with chrysotile, small amounts of asbestos are still imported into the U.S. in the form of manufactured products containing the carcinogen, such as brake blocks for the oil industry and rubber sheets for gaskets. The exact amount of these other forms of asbestos is unknown, the report added.