US bans asbestos after decades of industrial resistance

The chlor-alkali industry, which utilizes asbestos in diaphragms for chemical synthesis, is now compelled to transition towards safer alternatives.

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The long-awaited ban on the most common form of asbestos, chrysotile, marks a historic victory for public health in the United States. Announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this move aligns the U.S. with over 50 countries that have already outlawed this cancer-causing substance, putting an end to decades of relentless pushback from industries reliant on its use.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan made the announcement, emphasizing the undeniable science behind the decision: “Asbestos is a known carcinogen that has severe impacts on public health.” This regulatory action signals a pivotal shift as the agency embarks on a mission to safeguard American families, workers, and communities from toxic chemicals.

Asbestos exposure, particularly through inhalation of its tiny fibrous strands, is linked to a host of severe illnesses, including lung and ovarian cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Alarmingly, over 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are attributable to asbestos-related conditions.

Though the prevalence of asbestos in consumer products has significantly diminished over the years, the EPA’s ban specifically targets residual uses in certain products such as some gaskets and aftermarket automotive components. Moreover, it initiates a phase-out of asbestos diaphragms employed by the chlor-alkali industry, a sector that has historically utilized asbestos in the production of essential chemicals.

Arthur Frank, a seasoned professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, points out that while the rule is a step forward, it falls short of a total prohibition. Asbestos, according to Frank, remains present in numerous buildings and products nationwide, highlighting the ban’s limited scope.

The journey to this landmark regulation has been fraught with challenges. Previous endeavors to ban asbestos met with formidable opposition, particularly from the chlor-alkali industry, which benefited from a notable exemption in the EPA’s 1989 prohibition attempt. This initial rule was eventually nullified by federal courts, citing excessive burdens on industries, thereby stalling further regulatory efforts for decades.

The turning point came with the 2016 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which revitalized the EPA’s mandate to regulate hazardous chemicals more effectively. This recent ban is the first significant rule finalized under the revamped legislation, heralding a new era in chemical safety enforcement.

The chlor-alkali industry, which utilizes asbestos in diaphragms for chemical synthesis, is now compelled to transition towards safer alternatives. The EPA’s structured timeline allows the industry to gradually phase out asbestos use, aiming for a complete shift to non-asbestos technologies within the next five to twelve years, depending on the facility.

The ban also extends to several asbestos-containing products, including oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes, and linings, with enforcement set to commence six months post-rule enactment. Additionally, sheet gaskets containing asbestos will face prohibition two years following the rule’s effective date, albeit with certain exceptions.

Reactions to the EPA’s announcement have been overwhelmingly positive, with labor unions and environmental groups lauding the decision as a monumental step towards eradicating a longstanding public health menace. Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, praised the “groundbreaking, landmark protection,” acknowledging the decades-long battle unions have waged against asbestos.

Similarly, environmental advocates, such as the Environmental Working Group, have welcomed the EPA’s decisive action. Senior Vice President Scott Faber remarked on the historical significance, stating, “It’s been more than 50 years since EPA first sought to ban some uses of asbestos, and we’re closer than ever to finishing the job.”

Political figures have also voiced their support, with Sen. Jeff Merkley and the Congressional Progressive Caucus recognizing the ban as a crucial first step towards a future devoid of asbestos exposure. “An immediate ban on the import of chrysotile asbestos for the chlor-alkali industry is a long overdue step forward for public health,” said Senator Merkley. “However, it cannot be the end of the road when it comes to phasing out other dangerous asbestos fibers, and Congress has a role to play here when it comes to providing stronger protections for our health.”

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