WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has said it intends to ban a form of asbestos, the first time the federal government has moved to significantly restrict toxic industrial materials since 1989.
Under the proposed regulation on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency would ban the use, manufacture and import of chrysotile asbestos, a type of asbestos that has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Chrysotile is the only raw form of asbestos currently known to be imported, processed, or distributed for use in the United States. Known as “white asbestos,” it is used in roofing materials, textiles, and cement, as well as gaskets, clutches, brake pads, and other auto parts.
It would still be legal to import other types of asbestos, but companies must notify the EPA before importing any product known to contain asbestos fibers, and the agency has the authority to deny such imports.
Health advocates who have been fighting for decades to ban all forms of asbestos called the EPA’s decision insufficient. They point out that asbestos is associated with approximately 40,000 deaths annually in the United States. More than 60 countries and territories have banned asbestos.
The proposed rule contrasts sharply with the Trump administration, which fought against asbestos-banning legislation and imposed a policy that EPA scientists themselves said left gaps for industries to continue using. . Former President Donald J. Trump incorrectly declared asbestos “100 percent safe” in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, and claimed that the “asbestos removal” movement was led by the mafia, because it was often mafia-related companies that would remove the asbestos. “
Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, said Tuesday that the proposed rule “will finally put an end” to dangerous asbestos use.
“This proposed historic ban would protect the American people from exposure to chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen,” said Mr. Regan said in a statement that the agency would take other “bold and long-awaited actions” to protect Americans from toxic chemicals. .
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to withstand heat, fire, and electricity. It was first used in construction in the 1930s and became ubiquitous as an insulator in schools, hospitals, homes, and offices, as well as in consumer products.
In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to link it to health problems. Inhalation of asbestos fibers, even in small amounts, can cause irreversible scarring to the lungs, as well as a cancer called malignant mesothelioma.
The EPA under President George HW Bush tried to ban the use of asbestos in 1989, but that effort was overturned by federal courts in 1991. However, the ruling upheld the ban on new uses. of asbestos. Because of this, and possible legal liability, asbestos use declined in the United States.
Asbestos production in the United States stopped in 2002, but is still imported to produce chemicals used in the manufacture of items such as household bleach, bulletproof vests and electrical insulation, as well as automotive products.
Brazil was once the source of about 95 percent of all asbestos used in America, according to the EPA, but in 2017 banned its manufacture and sale. Since then, Russia has intervened as a supplier. During the Trump administration, Russian firm Uralasbest, one of the largest producers and sellers of asbestos, posted a picture of its packaging on Facebook showing President Trump’s face along with the words: “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States. ”
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
An EPA official said the sanctions the Biden administration has imposed on Russia since invading Ukraine in February played no role in the EPA’s decision to ban asbestos imports.
In recent months, companies using imported asbestos, such as Western Chemical Corporation and Olin Corporation, as well as trade groups such as the Chlorine Institute and the American Chemistry Council, have met with the White House to discuss possible action by the EPA.
Neither company responded to a request for comment. Frank Reiner, president of the Chlorine Institute, which represents chlorine producers and distributors, said its member companies should review the proposed rule before commenting.
The industry believes the use of chrysotile asbestos is safe, he said. “There have been measures in chlorine production for many, many years,” Mr. Reiner. “We believe we have been using it safely and taking the right steps.”
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that banning chrysotile asbestos will have “unintended consequences” because it is used in the production of chlorine, which is used to treat drinking water. Marty Durbin, president of the House Energy Institute, said the EPA should take a “more realistic approach to asbestos regulation.”
About 300 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos were imported into the U.S. by 2020, according to a U.S. Geological Survey of Mineral Minutes. It is used almost exclusively to make chlorine-based products, the EPA said.
An EPA assessment in 2020 found “unreasonable risks to human health” associated with asbestos diaphragms, sheet metal joints, brake blocks and other products.
Restrictions on asbestos diaphragms and foil joints for commercial use would take effect two years after the date of entry into force of the final standard. Prohibitions related to oil field brake pads, aftermarket car brakes and coatings, other vehicle friction products and other joints for commercial use would take effect 180 days after the entry into force of the norm.
Linda Reinstein, president and founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the other five forms of asbestos are just as dangerous and should be banned. He noted that one of the biggest threats is inherited asbestos, resulting from decades of rampant use of the product in the construction, insulation of buildings and the manufacture of many products.
“Without a ban on all types of fiber, asbestos can still be imported into consumer products, children’s toys and building materials,” he said.
Dr. Raja M. Flores, president of the thoracic surgery department at the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai, New York, said he sees about 60 patients a year suffering from mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. . “If you look closely, you’ll find the connection,” Dr. Flores said. “The school where they taught for 10 years actually had asbestos or they were working with brake pads outside their home.”
He also called for a complete ban on asbestos, but described the EPA’s proposed rule as a “step in the right direction.” “I’ve been on this battlefield for decades, and I’m glad they’re finally banning something,” Dr. Flores said.
Michal Freedhoff, the EPA’s deputy chemical safety and pollution prevention administrator, said the agency intends to conduct analysis of other types of asbestos.
Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution recognizing National Asbestos Awareness Week. It urges the Office of the Surgeon General to better warn and educate people about the public health issues of asbestos exposure. Legislation that would completely ban asbestos – and which bears the name of Mrs. Reinstein’s husband, who died more than a decade ago from mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure – has never reached the vote of the House or Senate.