It’s fairly positive to say that 2020 was one of the worst years in recent history. The global pandemic has taken its toll on the health and lives of millions of Americans and by the looks of it, we still have quite a fight ahead of us. 

Situations like this, when unpredictable viruses put a stop to what we used to know as normalcy and potentially endanger our lives, should truly make us pay more attention to all controllable factors that could pose a risk to our health and question whether or not what is being done to keep us safe is enough as well as what actions should be taken in order to do so.

One of the health hazards Americans have been exposed to for decades is asbestos, the controversial mineral that has been extensively used even before 1900, mainly in the construction and automotive industry but also in some commonly used products such as paint, tiles, and even protection equipment. For years, scientific evidence has clearly proved asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral and that no amount of asbestos is safe. Still, banning asbestos in the U.S proves to be a challenge. 

Worldwide, over 60 countries and territories have banned asbestos, but efforts to completely ban it in the United States have been repeatedly blocked by industry. Although asbestos mining has been banned in 2002 when the last U.S. asbestos mine officially closed, it is still legal to import and use the hazardous mineral in small amounts. With the lack of a complete ban, there are still several products that can legally contain up to 1 percent asbestos. 

In 2018, the EPA enacted the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), allowing companies to use new asbestos-containing products on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, they have also released a new framework for how it evaluates chemical risk. What is not included in the evaluation process are the potential effects of exposure to chemicals in the air, ground, or water. 

The SNUR does not apply to new uses of asbestos but to pre-1989 uses that are currently legal, (which no one continues to use today). It basically states companies could start reusing asbestos in certain ways, but they will need the EPA’s approval first. There have been identified 15 product categories that would be subject to review, including adhesives, gaskets, and high-grade electrical paper.

SNUR states it will change the previous ban on using asbestos in new ways, nor make legal any uses that were previously outlawed. This rule was formulated after modifications in 2016 to the Toxic Substances Control Act — the nation’s primary legislation regulating chemical safety. Those updates state the EPA is obligated to regularly reevaluate chemicals such as asbestos.

Since 2016, the EPA has analyzed asbestos under the TSCA risk evaluation process. The process had numerous legal challenges which left the status of asbestos risk evaluation outstanding for most of 2020. On December 22, 2020, a Northern District of California judge ordered the EPA to shut asbestos reporting “loopholes” in its CDR Rule and gather further info concerning current uses of asbestos. 

The EPA’s Final Risk analysis for asbestos was expected to be finished by 2020, but the agency only released the first part in January, addressing 16 conditions of asbestos use which address either occupational exposure or consumer use. This first part did not address the fact that asbestos remains in residential and business buildings after many decades of free use. To this end, the EPA has announced that the second part of the preliminary evaluation will become public in mid-2021 and will address the issue of legacy asbestos and the associated disposals of the product.

While asbestos has not been mined in the U.S. since 2002, around 100 metric tons of raw asbestos was imported in 2019, all of which was consumed by the chloralkali industry. The list of asbestos imports includes sheet gaskets, aftermarket automotive brakes, brake blocks, other gaskets, and friction products. 

So, when will asbestos be banned in the U.S.? Legislation regarding the comprehensive asbestos ban still remains unclear. But one thing is clear – massive scientific evidence that attests to the health hazard of asbestos. Taking this into consideration, we cannot help but hope that in the coming year’s regulations will toughen to a complete ban on asbestos in this country.