It surprises many Minnesotans to learn that asbestos is still legal for some purposes in the U.S., even though it sickens thousands of people every year. Most people assume that asbestos products are largely left over from decades ago, before companies understood how dangerous the mineral fiber is.
There is a lot of asbestos material left over from decades past, but it is still legal to sell some products that contain asbestos, or which are processed using asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban use of the substance in 1989, but its ban was overturned in 1991 by court decision ruling that the EPA didn’t have the authority to ban asbestos.
Most uses of asbestos in the U.S. have been discontinued, but chrysotile asbestos continues to be used in brake linings and gaskets and in the manufacturing of some chlorine bleach and sodium hydroxide. Asbestos is banned in over 50 countries – but not the U.S.
In 2016, Congress passed a law updating the Toxic Substances Control Act, a major source of the EPA’s authority. The update requires the EPA to fully evaluate all toxic substances and regulate against unreasonable risks to human health.
Now, the EPA is finished with its evaluation of asbestos, and it has proposed banning the mineral fiber for most uses, including the manufacture of chlorine. The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobbying group, worries that banning asbestos would harm America’s drinking water by limiting the production of chlorine. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant in around 98% of water treatment facilities in the U.S.
However, according to the Associated Press, there are only 10 plants left in the U.S. that use asbestos diaphragms to manufacture chlorine. Most chlorine plants use other technology.
Is this proposal the law now?
No. It is being proposed as a regulation, which means it has to go through a period of review and public commentary before it can take effect. Even assuming the new rule makes it through the process intact, it wouldn’t go into effect for two years after its finalization date.
Would the rule end the asbestos problem in the U.S.?
Unfortunately, no. There is a lot of asbestos remaining in old factories, older buildings and the environment. Cleanup must be done by trained professionals in special gear, and people are often exposed to it during the demolition of old buildings, fighting fires, or working in industries that still rely on asbestos.
Any exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer. These diseases take years or decades to develop, meaning that people will still be getting sick from asbestos exposure for a long time to come.