The Trump administration has denied a petition by a coalition of environmental groups calling for increased reporting of asbestos importation and use by U.S. manufacturers – despite a sharp rise in asbestos imports into U.S. ports.
The petition asked the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, to require importers and users of asbestos and asbestos-containing products to report on their activities and disclose these reports to the public.
In October, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, or ADAO, and EWG analyzed import data that showed asbestos imports soared by nearly 2,000 percent between July and August 2018.
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Commerce Department, in August alone, the U.S. imported 272 metric tons of asbestos, compared with 13 metric tons in July.
Today, asbestos is a valuable raw material for the United States in the production of braking systems for vehicles, asphalt roof coatings, and gaskets. The United States consumes about 13,000 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos per year. Moreover, asbestos-cement pipes and sheets are imported for use. Asbestos is no longer used for friable insulation applications or similar products that caused high levels of exposure to workers in past decades.
Although the use of asbestos is rigidly regulated in the United States to ensure that workers and consumers are not exposed to significant levels of risk from asbestos fibers, there is only one restriction related to the types of products that can be manufactured with asbestos. Product manufacturers are free to market any asbestos-containing product that was sold in or before 1989; EPA approval must be obtained before selling any product containing asbestos that was not produced by 1989.
In the mid-1980s, public panic over asbestos in buildings – which was later discovered to be unjustified – forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to propose a ban on products containing asbestos. The EPA’s proposal resulted in a massive compilation of information about the benefits of multiple asbestos-containing products, as well as the potential for human exposure to risk in such applications.
Based on that exhaustive record, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that such a ban was unjustified. Although the court ruled that it would allow the EPA to pre-authorize the development of new products containing asbestos, it found that all applications existing at that time should be allowed to continue.
The U.S. Court found that a ban on asbestos-containing products was unjustified for the following reasons:
- There would be no significant human exposure to asbestos fibers if asbestos-containing products were produced and used under controlled conditions;
- Substitutes for asbestos-containing products themselves present potential risks to human health that could be more significant than any potential threat from asbestos; and
- Products containing asbestos offer significant benefits compared to substitute products that do not.
The use and production of asbestos-containing products, as well as the production and consumption of many other chemicals that may pose a risk if not adequately controlled, are regulated in the United States not only by the EPA, but also by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). The EPA regulates emissions into the air and water tributaries of asbestos-producing facilities and also provides guidelines on how to dispose of asbestos-containing waste.
OSHA has established a comprehensive occupational health standard for asbestos that requires workers who are potentially at risk of exposure to asbestos to be adequately trained and aware of minimizing any risk associated with asbestos as well as setting hard limits for exposure to airborne particles. The DOT regulates the transportation of asbestos.
As a result of the comprehensive set of standards that exist in the United States today, exposure levels for workers or the general public are minimal and do not present a significant risk. Simultaneously, the audience enjoys the unique benefits that the qualities of this mineral offer as an active agent and low-cost raw material in the manufacture of construction and friction products.