U.S. Bans the Last Type of Asbestos Still in Use

New York Times

The United States joins more than 50 other countries that have banned the deadly carcinogen, although the phaseout will take more than a decade.

The Biden administration on Monday finalized a ban on the only type of asbestos still used in the United States, the first time since 1989 the federal government has moved to significantly restrict the toxic industrial material.

The regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency would prohibit the use, manufacture and import of chrysotile asbestos, which has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer that forms in the lining of some internal organs.

Chrysotile is the only raw form of asbestos known to be currently imported, processed or distributed for use in the United States. Known as white asbestos, the mineral is used in roofing materials, textiles and cement as well as gaskets, clutches, brake pads and other automotive parts. It is also a component in diaphragms used to make chlorine.

In some ways, the ban is a weaker version of a proposal the agency announced in 2022, which would have required a two-year phaseout for most commercial uses.

The final rule would require the ban on imports to begin as soon as the measure comes into force. But it would allow up to 12 years for companies to phase out the use of asbestos in manufacturing, depending on the facility. The change followed lobbying efforts by companies, such as the Olin Corporation, a major chemical manufacturer, as well as trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council.

It would remain legal to import other types of asbestos, but companies would be required to notify the E.P.A. beforehand and the agency would have the authority to deny those imports.

“With today’s ban, E.P.A. is finally slamming the door on a chemical so dangerous that it has been banned in over 50 countries,” the E.P.A. administrator, Michael S. Regan, said in a telephone call with reporters. “President Biden understands that this concern that has spanned generations and impacted the lives of countless people.”

Health advocates who have been battling for decades to prohibit all forms of asbestos said the new rule was insufficient. They noted that asbestos was linked to an estimated 40,000 deaths annually in the United States. Mesothelioma disproportionately affects firefighters, who are exposed to asbestos through damaged buildings and have a much higher risk of developing the cancer than the general population.

“While closing the door to chrysotile imports is a historic step, the E.P.A. rule does not restrict importation and use of five other recognized asbestos fibers,” Linda Reinstein, president and founder of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said. “We are also alarmed that the rule allows an unnecessarily long transition period and creates inconsistent compliance deadlines for certain asbestos users that will enable dangerous exposure to chrysotile asbestos to continue for years to come.”

One of the biggest threats is so-called legacy asbestos, stemming from decades of unbridled use of the product in construction, building insulation and the manufacturing of many products, Ms. Reinstein said.

The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying organization, had asked for 15 years to phase out the use of asbestos. The council said that eliminating the use of asbestos in the manufacture of drinking water treatment components would “cause substantial harm to America’s drinking water supply, and unwarranted alarm for products in the marketplace which are essential to ongoing climate, sustainability, and infrastructure projects.”

Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator of the E.P.A. Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said on Monday that those concerns resonated as the agency wrote its final rule.

She said the agency did consider whether its original two-year time frame “could have resulted in extended closures of some of the facilities that make the chemicals that we need to purify our drinking water, and that’s why we built in some extra time for the actual conversion of those facilities.”

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have the ability to resist 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 consumer products.

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to associate it with health problems. Inhaling asbestos fibers, even in small amounts, can cause irreversible scarring of the lungs as well as malignant mesothelioma.

The E.P.A. under the first President George Bush tried to ban asbestos use in 1989 but that effort was overturned by federal courts in 1991. However, the ruling did retain prohibitions against new uses of asbestos. Because of that, and the potential legal liability, use of asbestos declined.

Asbestos production in the United States stopped in 2002 but it is still imported and used in the manufacturing of items like household bleach, bulletproof vests and electrical insulation as well as automotive products.

Between 2019 and 2022, Brazil supplied about 70 percent of all asbestos used in the United States and Russia supplied about 30 percent, according to a United States Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries report.

The ban is the first legal constraint on a deadly substance since 2016, when Congress updated and strengthened the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act by requiring testing and regulation of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products.

A 2020 evaluation by the E.P.A. found “unreasonable risks to human health” associated with diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake blocks and other products made with asbestos.

The rule announced Monday stands in sharp contrast to the position of the Trump administration, which fought legislation that would have banned asbestos and imposed a policy that E.P.A.’s own scientists said would have allowed industries to continue its use.

Former President Donald J. Trump, now running to retake the White House from Mr. Biden, inaccurately declared asbestos “100 percent safe” in his 1997 book, “Trump: The Art of the Comeback,” and claimed the movement to remove asbestos “was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”

Should Mr. Trump win in November, he could potentially roll back or weaken the ban, although the legal process could take two to three years or longer.

That is one reason Congress should enact laws to quickly ban all forms of asbestos, said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, who has introduced a bill to ban imports of all asbestos. “At least we’re finally acting, big hurrah for that,” Mr. Merkley said in an interview. “But legislation will end the use of asbestos faster, and it will last.”