Why hasn't the US banned asbestos?

How is asbestos regulated around the world, and what can we do to move towards a total ban?


There are many natural and chemical toxins that are dangerous to human health. Materials can be  harmful to individuals  if they are simply inhaled, ingested, or mishandled.

One of those many hazardous materials is asbestos. With scientific evidence proving the substance causes disease over time and many real-life examples to prove this case, scientists and health professionals alike have come out to say that asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen.

Most nations have taken this warning seriously and have banned it completely, but countries like the United States still allow for legal asbestos use within their nations borders. 

What is asbestos?

Asbestos has been used in many different types of housing insulations as well as other consumer products, but do you know what it really is?

Asbestos is made of six natural fibers that have heat resistant, fire resistant, and electricity protecting properties, all of which makes the material a versatile resource. 

In the mid-twentieth century it was discovered that asbestos was a cancer causing agent. If broken or disturbed, it can become airborne which then poses serious threats to the body. Due to its fibrous nature, inhaled or ingested asbestos can cling to the tissue inside the lung or abdomen.

Around thirty years after exposure, asbestos can cause serious ailments including pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma.  Workers in fields such as construction, automotive repair, and commercial product manufacturing are at risk if and when exposed to disrupted asbestos. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, however there are some 30 million pounds of asbestos used in the U.S. every year. While there is no ban in the US, more than 50 countries, including Australia, India, and all 28 countries of the European Nations have banned asbestos. 

Regulating asbestos

Protection of workers from the potential harms of asbestos fall onto the EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

OSHA controls and oversees working conditions in the US, ensuring that employees are safe and protected by implementing and managing workplace standards. The EPA is responsible for protecting state and local employees who may be exposed to any form of hazardous material, through the Toxic Substance Control Act. This protects those who were not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations asbestos regulations.

The NIOSH is a federal agency that runs research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries and illnesses. 

Even though there are restrictions, the US is one of the few major industrialised nations without a ban currently in place.

While there have been many warnings and scientific evidence that proves that that asbestos in fact causes disease there are only acts that restrict the use of asbestos. These include laws like the EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule, the Asbestos-Containing Materials in School Rule, and the Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule. 

Legal requirements 

Here is a further explanation of some of the rules:

- Asbestos Information Act 

This law requires that companies making certain types asbestos containing products be required to identify themselves and report production to the EPA.

- Clean Air Act (CCA)  

This law explains the EPA’s role in protecting and improving air quality in the U.S. It also states that the EPA is responsible to set standards for dangerous air pollutants. Asbestos is among those air pollutants. 

- The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) (Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Title II)

This law states that the EPA is required to ensure that the local schools are checking their buildings for any material containing asbestos. From there, schools are required to prepare plans for asbestos removal and/or management. It also explains that the EPA is responsible for providing model plans for those conducting asbestos inspections in schools.

- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

This law oversees the working conditions of U.S. employees by implementing and overseeing safety and health standards for workers.

- EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule

This regulation states that the EPA is required to protect workers on the state and local government employee level that were not covered by OSHA.

- Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule

Rule issued by the EPA on July 12, 1989, that banned most asbestos-containing products. However, in 1991 this rule was overturned and as a result only a few asbestos-containing products remain banned. The goal is to phase-out the remaining products.

Around the world

Asbestos has been banned in 55 countries worldwide, but not in China, Russia, India, Canada, or the United States. Countries that have banned the product include those such as, France, Turkey, Ireland, South Africa, Poland, and the Netherlands to name a few. 

- China

While there are so many countries that have taken action on the ban on asbestos, China being a major country has not. China is the world’s largest consumer of asbestos in the world, due to the rapid growth of industrialization in the nation.

China is also the second-largest producer of asbestos and according to the China Chrysotile Association, record amounts of the material have been used in the past decade. While the US hit its peak use of asbestos in the 1973, China on the other hand has hit its peak use numbers in recent years  as they started using asbestos frequently in the late 1970s.

- Russia

For years, Russia has been the a lead producer in worldwide asbestos mine production. Since Russia is one of the few nations still mining and exporting the natural substance, the U.S. purchased asbestos from a Russian production company.

Shortly after pictures appeared on the the exporters Facebook page showing a faux stamp of approval featuring Trump’s face which read, “Approved by Donald Trump the 45th President of the United States.” 

- Canada

The Canadian government has made great strides when it comes to asbestos related laws. The government recognizes that asbestos can cause cancer and other diseases, but there is no official ban on the substance entirely.

As of October 2018, the Prohibition of Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos Regulations are in place, which prohibit the import, sale, and use of asbestos, including the manufacturing and use of asbestos containing products.

Although Canada is taking steps in the right direction, there still needs to be more regulations about current asbestos already in use to protect Canadian workers and homeowners. 

Further action 

There are many ways in which the US legislation is changing the way asbestos is used. However there are no rules that completely ban this deadly material that is affecting the lives of many citizens  and their families.

In order to make a bigger impact, the US needs to rework laws and enact a complete ban on the  use of asbestos in homes, schools, and existing products. As of June, the EPA proposed a "significant new use rule," that could allow asbestos back into certain products with historic use deemed to be unthreatening.

During the Obama administration, in 2016, the EPA was required to constantly reevaluate harmful toxins and in fact reviewed 10 chemicals due to an amendment added to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. Under the new Trump administration, the EPA is approaching evaluating chemicals in a new way.

NBC News said: “The agency now focuses on how chemicals potentially cause harm through direct contact in the workplace, not taking into account improper disposal or other means of contamination that could greatly affect the public.”

In response, asbestos-related disease advocacy groups are rebelling and have argued that this rule is providing more loopholes to use this inexpensive toxin at the expense of the health of United States citizens . 

Once new asbestos cannot be introduced, it is important we take the proactive procedures to abate and dispose of known asbestos sites still hidden behind walls and across state lines. The only way the government can make sure that no one is affected by this harmful chemical, is to ban it from the United States completely.

This Author 

Emily Walsh is a community outreach director from New York. Her background is focussed on heightening awareness and advocacy for community health. Walsh is currently specializing in rare cancer research, specifically mesothelioma, one of the only known cancers that is completely preventable.