Is Asbestos Banned in the U.S.?
Asbestos is restricted in the United States, but it is not fully banned. Even though the heavy use of asbestos-containing products in the 20th century contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of veterans and tradespeople, some asbestos use is still allowed today.
Asbestos-containing products like floor tiles, insulation, and other building materials must be reviewed by the EPA before going on the market. Additionally, some car parts such as brakes and clutches are legally permitted to contain asbestos.
The mining of asbestos stopped in 2002. All asbestos used in the U.S. is now imported. Some of the imported asbestos appears in gaskets and friction products for the automobile industry.
History of Asbestos Use
While ancient civilizations used asbestos, it was the industrial revolution that propelled the material’s widespread use in the modern world. As steam power developed, the need arose for effective fireproofing materials like asbestos, which was abundant and cheap.
Asbestos was used in the construction of:
- Ceiling tiles
- Military bases
- Pipes and insulators
However, by the 1930s, health officials realized this miracle fireproofing material posed considerable dangers to those exposed to it — serious diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. By this time, asbestos was big business and a powerful industry that would not be regulated until the advent of the EPA in the early 1970s.
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The Asbestos Cover-Up
Until 1978, litigation against the asbestos industry involved accusations with little proof that the industry knew the dangers of asbestos exposure.
However, internal documents and statements from two of the biggest manufacturers, Johns-Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan, show they made false claims when they asserted they only learned of asbestos dangers as a result of a 1964 Mount Sinai Hospital research study.
Documents uncovered in a series of lawsuits in the late 1970s indicate that the nation’s largest asbestos companies knew the dangers of asbestos as early as the 1930s and conspired to cover it up.
Letters and files from earlier decades, beginning in 1934, show the company executives suppressed information that showed asbestos was harmful to workers.
Other documents stated that Philip Carey, Co., another large asbestos manufacturer, ignored warnings from its own medical consultant about the dangers of asbestos. When the consultant warned of possible future lawsuits, he was dismissed.
In the meantime, the companies quietly settled lawsuits when necessary, and even enforced a policy that withheld sharing information with an employee when his company physical exam indicated asbestosis.
The Sumner Simpson Papers
The Sumner Simpson Papers refer to a massive cover-up by Sumner Simpson, the president and founder of the Raybestos-Manhattan Company.
“The less said about asbestos, the better off we are.”
—Sumner Simpson, president of Raybestos-Manhattan Company, 1935
Simpson, together with his attorney, minimized the dangers of asbestos to the company’s workers. They spearheaded their own research project in order to counter claims as they were presented.
Documentation shows that Simpson said they would distribute information as long as it was “of the right type” and it would not “injure the companies.”
Early Asbestos Legislation
The efforts to limit the use of asbestos began in the 1970s when the toxicity of asbestos could no longer be ignored. Untold thousands of mineworkers, veterans, and tradespeople were falling victim to lung issues and cancer — and all had been exposed to asbestos.
Formed by the U.S. government, the EPA was first tasked with formally labeling asbestos as a toxic substance. After that, it needed to create a process for restricting asbestos. The EPA acted quickly to meet the country’s growing fears about the health risks of asbestos.
Learn more about the first laws passed to control asbestos below.
The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976
The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) gave the EPA the authority to impose restrictions on chemicals used by American industries. Asbestos was one of 62,000 chemicals listed at the time of the law’s passage.
While there was still no effort to ban asbestos products, the TSCA allowed the EPA to regulate how asbestos product manufacturers and consumers packaged, handled, stored, and disposed of asbestos-containing materials.
Unfortunately, weaknesses in the law quickly became apparent. The EPA lacked the funds to test chemicals for safety, so it could only rely on the manufacturers to test their own chemicals.
Clean Air Act of 1970
The Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 (and its amendments in 1977 and 1990) first declared all types of asbestos fibers to be toxic substances. The CAA also allowed the EPA to set exposure tolerance limits for asbestos and establish the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP).
It was passed in response to increased concern over air pollution from automobile emissions and industries such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and paper mills.
The Clean Air Act regulates work practices to ensure asbestos fibers are not released into the air during demolition or renovation of a facility that may involve asbestos-containing products.
It also bans asbestos pipe insulation and block insulation on boilers and hot water tanks as well as spray-applied surfacing materials that contain more than 1% asbestos.
Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974
This act allows the EPA to regulate the nation’s public water supply.
The EPA sets and enforces a national drinking water standard to protect against threats like improper disposal of chemicals, including asbestos, pesticides, and other substances that could contaminate drinking water.
Asbestos Legislation in the 1980s and 1990s
As the 1970s came to a close, the cry for increased legislation and reform regarding asbestos only grew louder.
With more cases of mesothelioma being diagnosed, the link between asbestos exposure and the deadly cancer became even clearer.
Asbestos Information Act of 1986
Within 90 days of Congress passing the Asbestos Information Act, all industries that produced materials containing asbestos had to report certain information to the EPA.
This included the type or class of product, years of manufacture, and other identifying characteristics. In turn, the EPA made that information available to the public.
Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986
The Asbestos Hazardous Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was enacted in an effort to protect children in the nation’s schools. By this time, it was well known that commercial and residential buildings in every city were constructed with asbestos-containing materials.
AHERA required public and non-profit schools to establish protocols and procedures to inspect, identify, and remove asbestos that might be endangering occupants of a building.
The legislation called for schools to create and maintain an Asbestos Management Plan that would effectively guide personnel if an asbestos situation arose.
Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule of 1989
The EPA took the first step to ban asbestos altogether when it enacted the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule of 1989. The ruling would have, over time, banned all asbestos use in the U.S.
However, in response to pressure from the asbestos industry, a federal judge overturned the ruling in 1991. The only parts of the rule that were left intact included a ban on any new asbestos products.
In addition to new products, it also banned five existing products, including:
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Flooring felt
- Specialty paper
Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1990
The Asbestos Hazard Abatement Act was passed to protect the nation’s schoolchildren, teachers, and staff. This legislation helped strengthen AHERA, aiding states and local schools in maintaining and implementing their Asbestos Management Plans.
As the nation’s schools aged, the EPA reported that 44,000 schools contained “friable” or loose asbestos, exposing 15 million students and 1.5 million teachers and support staff.
Current Status of Asbestos Bans
In the past 20 years, very little new legislation has made it into law. Lawmakers introduced several bills in the last decade called the The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution (FAIR) Act in an effort to aid those seeking compensation for asbestos exposure. None have passed.
Sadly, bills to ban asbestos in the United States have also been rejected. Parts of the proposed laws would have appropriated money to help those with asbestos-related diseases and fund scientific research on the link between asbestos and cancer.
In 2019, the EPA issued a final rule (a step near the end of an agency’s rule-making process) that strengthens its ability to ban asbestos products that are no longer on the market. This rule allows the EPA to prevent them from ever reentering the market or to severely limit their use.
The final rule addresses:
- New uses: The EPA prohibits all new uses of asbestos. Any person planning on manufacturing, importing, or processing asbestos must notify the EPA a minimum of 90 days prior. The EPA will conduct a thorough review of the processes and either restrict or prohibit the use.
- Off-market uses: The public is protected from uses of asbestos that are no longer on the market and are not covered under any other laws or regulations. This might include certain asbestos floor tiles, insulation, other building materials, and clothing and manufacturing products.
All asbestos uses covered under the 1989 ban remain in place. This rule maintains the previous ban prohibiting any banned products from returning to the marketplace.
The banned asbestos-containing products include:
- Arc chutes
- Beater-add gaskets
- Cement products
- Extruded sealant tape and other tapes
- Filler for acetylene cylinders
- Friction materials
- High-grade electrical paper
- Missile liner
- Pipeline wrap
- Reinforced plastics
- Roof and non-roof coatings
- Roofing felt
- Separators in fuel cells and batteries
- Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
- Woven products
- Other building products
The latest development was introduced in March 2023 when the EPA announced an updated proposal to ban all uses of chrysotile asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is the last known type of asbestos still being imported into the U.S. to make products like cement and brake linings. It’s also the most common type of asbestos, making up 90-95% of asbestos used in buildings.
The EPA’s proposed chrysotile asbestos ban still has not been finalized, but in time, the United States will hopefully join the nearly 70 other countries that have completely banned the use of asbestos.
Legal and Banned Asbestos Products in the U.S.
More than 90% of asbestos-containing products are still on the American market.
Some common products that legally contain asbestos include:
- Asbestos-cement pipes
- Asbestos protective clothing
- Automotive brake pads and clutch discs
- Flat and corrugated sheets
- Gaskets, valves, hoses, and packings
- Pipe and duct wraps
- Roofing, ceiling, and flooring materials
However, several asbestos-containing materials have been banned under EPA and CPSC rules.
The following asbestos-based products are on the banned substances list:
- Block insulation for boilers and furnaces
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Decorative fireplace embers
- Flooring felt
- New uses
- Spackling and joint compound
- Specialty paper
- Spray-on fireproofing and insulation materials
- Spray-applied decorative materials
- Wet-applied and pre-formed molded pipe insulation
A full list of banned asbestos-containing materials can be found on the EPA’s website.
Asbestos Legislation by State
Individual state asbestos legislation focuses more on managing existing asbestos rather than the new manufacture of asbestos-containing products.
State courts may:
- Investigate asbestos violations
- Issue licenses and certifications
- Punish those who break the law
For example, Kansas and Iowa limit fines for first offenses to $5,000 per violation, while Hawaii caps its civil penalty at $10,000, with each day of the violation serving as a separate offense.
Most states administer and enforce AHERA and parts of TSCA. Only Wyoming and Arizona do not have this authorization.
AHERA requires states to create and execute training and authorization programs for asbestos inspectors and contractors and inspect every school for asbestos hazards.
Were You or a Loved One Exposed to Asbestos?
If you are a veteran or tradesperson, there’s a chance you may have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used on military bases and shipyards up until the 1980s. Tradespeople who worked with building materials or car parts are especially at risk.
Sometimes asbestos is carried home on the clothing of those exposed to it at their workplace. This places family members at risk through close contact or washing contaminated clothing.
If you suspect you or a loved one developed cancer from asbestos exposure, get your Free Mesothelioma Guide to learn more about treatment options and financial assistance.