Is Asbestos Banned in the U.S.?
Asbestos is restricted in the United States, but it is not fully banned. Despite the fact that 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.
Asbestos-containing products like floor tiles, insulation, and other building materials must be reviewed by the EPA before going on the market. Additionally, some automobile parts like brakes and clutches still legally contain asbestos.
U.S. mining operations of asbestos stopped in 2002. All asbestos used in the U.S. is now imported. Some of the imported asbestos is used in gaskets and friction products for the automobile industry.
History of Asbestos Bans and Limits
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 many things, including:
- Ceiling tiles
- Military bases
- Pipes and insulators
However, by the 1930s, health officials realized the miracle fireproofing material possessed a dark side for those exposed to it — serious diseases such as asbestosis, a chronic lung condition, and even a fatal cancer, mesothelioma.
But by this time, asbestos was big business and a powerful industry that would not be easily stopped — not until the advent of the EPA in the early 1970s.
Banned Asbestos Products in the U.S.
Formed by the U.S. Government, the EPA was first tasked with formally labeling asbestos as a toxic substance. After that, they needed to create a process for restricting asbestos. The EPA acted quickly to meet the country’s growing fears about the safety of asbestos.
The first acts Congress passed at the EPA’s recommendation were the:
- Clean Air Act: 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) rules.
- Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): In 1976, this federal act took asbestos control to another level. While there was still no effort to ban asbestos products, the TSCA allowed the EPA to regulate how asbestos-containing product producers and users dealt with packaging, handling, storing, and disposing of asbestos-containing materials.
Now, almost three decades later, little has changed. While the court allowed certain products to remain banned, well over 90% of asbestos-containing products are still on the American market.
Some common products that legally contain asbestos include:
- Flat and corrugated sheets
- Asbestos protective clothing
- Automotive brake pads and clutch discs
- Roofing, ceiling, and flooring materials
- Gaskets, valves, hoses, and packings
- Asbestos-cement pipes
- Pipe and duct wraps
However, under the EPA and CPSC rules, several asbestos-containing materials have been banned.
The following products are on the banned substances list:
- Spray-on fireproofing and insulation materials
- Spray-applied decorative materials
- Wet-applied and pre-formed molded pipe insulation
- Block insulation for boilers and furnaces
- Spackling and joint compound
- Decorative fireplace embers
- Corrugated paper
- Commercial paper
- Specialty paper
- Flooring felt
- New uses
A full list of banned asbestos-containing materials can be found on the EPA’s website.
The Early Asbestos Cover-Up
Until 1978, litigation against the asbestos industry involved accusations with little proof that the industry knew the dangers of asbestos exposure.
But 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.
The internal documents and statements from two of the biggest asbestos firms, Johns-Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan, show they made false claims when they asserted that they only learned of asbestos dangers as a result of a much later 1964 Mt. Sinai Hospital research study.
Letters and files from earlier decades beginning in 1934 show the company executives suppressed information that showed asbestos as harmful to workers.
Other documents implicate Philip Carey, Co., another large asbestos manufacturer, as ignoring warnings from its own medical consultant about the dangers of asbestos. When the consultant warned of possible future lawsuits, he was released from his work.
Findings show that, 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.
Early Asbestos Legislation
The efforts to limit the use of asbestos began four decades ago when the toxicity of asbestos could no longer be ignored.
Untold thousands of mineworkers, veterans, and tradespeople were falling victim to the same lung issues and cancer — and all had been exposed to asbestos.
The 1970s marked the beginning of legislation to counter the disastrous effects of this substance.
The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976
The TSCA gave the EPA the authority to require reporting, recordkeeping, and testing requirements, as well as to impose restrictions that related to chemical substances used by industry.
Asbestos was one of 62,000 chemicals listed at the time of the new legislation.
Weaknesses in the law quickly became apparent, as the EPA lacked the funds to test chemicals for safety, themselves. They could only rely on the companies to test their own chemicals.
Clean Air Act
This federal law enacted in 1970 regulates all sources of air emissions and authorized the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). This legislation was passed in response to increased concern over air pollution from automobile emissions and industries such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and paper mills.
With regard to asbestos, 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
Originally passed in 1974, this act allows the EPA to regulate the nation’s public water supply.
The agency sets and enforces a national drinking water standard to protect against threats like improper chemical disposal, including asbestos, pesticides, and other substances that could contaminate drinking water.
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.
In 1935, he told his company attorney, “the less said about asbestos, the better off we are.”
His attorney agreed with him and together the two minimized the dangers of asbestos to their 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.”
Asbestos Legislation in the 1980s and 1990s
As the 1970s came to a close, the cry for increased legislation and reform regarding asbestos only increased.
As doctors diagnosed more and more cases of mesothelioma, the link between asbestos exposure and the deadly cancer became more obvious.
Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule
The decade-old EPA made a bold move to ban Asbestos altogether, enacting the Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule of 1989. The ruling would have, over time, banned all asbestos use in the U.S.
In response to pressure from the asbestos industry, a federal judge overturned this ruling in 1991, leaving only pieces of the ruling intact that kept the ban on any new asbestos products, as well as five existing products. Banned products included flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, and specialty paper.
Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act
In 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 eradicate asbestos that might be endangering occupants of a building.
The legislation called for schools to create and maintain an Asbestos Management Plan to effectively guide personnel if an asbestos situation arose.
Asbestos Information Act
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Information Act.
Within 90 days of the passage of the law, 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 necessary to distinguish the material. In turn, the EPA made that information available to the public.
Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act
In 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 plan.
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.
Asbestos Legislation Today
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:
- 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.
- 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.
All asbestos uses covered under the 1989 ban will remain in place. This rule maintains the previous ban prohibiting any banned products from returning to the marketplace.
The banned asbestos-containing products include:
- Adhesives, sealants, roof and non-roof coatings
- 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
- Roofing felt
- Separators in fuel cells and batteries
- Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
- Woven products
- Other building products
In time, the United States will hopefully join several other countries in completely banning the use of asbestos.
Asbestos Legislation by State
Individual state asbestos legislation focuses more on managing existing asbestos rather than the manufacture of asbestos-containing products.
State courts may:
- Investigate asbestos violations
- Issue licenses and certifications
- Punish those who break the law
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 the AHERA and parts of the TSCA. Only Wyoming and Arizona do not have this authorization.
AHERA requires states to not only create and execute training and authorization programs for asbestos inspectors and contractors but also orders state authorities to inspect every school for asbestos hazards.
Were You Exposed to Asbestos?
If you are a veteran or tradesperson, there is a chance you may have been exposed to asbestos. Tradespeople who worked with building materials or car parts are especially at risk. Asbestos was commonly used on military bases and shipyards prior to the 1970s.
Sometimes asbestos is carried home on the clothing of those who were exposed to it at their workplace. This places family members at risk through close contact or washing contaminated clothing.
If you feel you or a family member may have developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease due to asbestos exposure, get our free mesothelioma guide to learn more.