Is Asbestos Still in Use Today?
Have asbestos products really been eliminated? The answer is no, not completely. One might think, with the awareness we have today about the toxic effects of asbestos, that this substance would be entirely banned in the United States. While it is not one hundred percent banned, it is highly regulated by OSHA and the EPA.
When Was Asbestos Used?
Let us go on a little historical journey to understand why the U.S. has not yet eliminated the use of asbestos. It was in the later part of the 19th century that asbestos started to become popular. In 1874, Henry W. Johns of New York submitted the first patent for an asbestos product called “Improvement for Compounds for Roofing and Other Products,” and in the 1890’s a large commercial asbestos mining operation began on Belvedere Mountain, Vermont.
Asbestos was marketed as a modern marvel and its use grew exponentially. With its strength and durability coupled with its resistance to heat and corrosion, asbestos containing products were predominately used for fireproofing, soundproofing, and insulation in industries such as manufacturing, construction, the automobile industry, and armament production. With such a vast array of purposes, asbestos was widely distributed; and with it being so efficient and inexpensive to obtain, it was highly valued as a resource.
At the same time the asbestos industry was booming, its toxic effect was beginning to be widely noticed. With its microscopic, long, thin fibers that can easily become airborne, people can inhale the fibers into their lungs, where they become lodged. The first article demonstrating bodily changes in 15 people that experienced asbestos exposure was published in 1918. Not long after, insurance companies started to refuse coverage to asbestos workers. Over subsequent decades, people across the globe were noticing and studying the effect of asbestos exposure on humans. In 1963-64 this research was confirmed in the U.S. with two epidemiological studies demonstrating a strong link between mesothelioma and asbestos. By 1970, there was no question that asbestos causes asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, and the need for swift action to curtail the danger was beginning to be taken seriously. By then, over 700 thousand tons of asbestos was used in the U.S. on an annual basis.
In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was a boon in that it allowed for a more centralized and coordinated approach to safely handling asbestos. The first Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation for asbestos occurred in 1971, setting a standard for a limit on exposure to workers. In 1973, the EPA banned the use of spraying materials that contain more than 1% of asbestos for fireproofing or insulating on buildings, structures, pipes, or conduits. In 1975, asbestos pipe and block insulation was banned by the EPA and was not allowed on boilers or hot water tanks if it was able to become airborne when dry. 1977 brought about a ban by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and all joint wall patching compounds. The EPA’s ban for spray-applied asbestos materials was expanded in 1978 to include spray applied surfaces for purposes not already included.
The 70’s was certainly a time of change regarding how asbestos was used and regulated. Many workers that had asbestos injuries looked for legal compensation through the courts and the U.S. Surgeon General issued the first governmental warning to doctors of the dangers of asbestos. OSHA and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) joined to form a working group and studied the effectiveness of the 1971 standard for asbestos exposure; they concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and that asbestos in the workplace needed to be significantly reduced. The Toxic Substances Control Act in the 70’s also gave the EPA the ability to regulate the use of asbestos.
1986 brought about two more significant events in controlling asbestos exposure. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed to require all public and non-profit schools to have an Asbestos Management Plan, which creates protocols and procedures to look for, identify, and abate asbestos that could be harmful. The Asbestos Information Act ordered any industry manufacturing asbestos-containing materials to make a report to the EPA and the EPA in turn made information available to the public.
When Was Asbestos Outlawed?
In 1989, the EPA, with its authority through the Toxic Substances Control Act, finally issued a rule that banned most asbestos-containing products in a way that would have eliminated its use over time, and in 1990 they also ruled that discontinued asbestos products would need specific EPA approval to be used. Industries lobbied vigorously and the full ban was overturned in court in 1991, leaving just a few specific types of asbestos products being banned along with any new uses of asbestos. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided that the ban was not the “least burdensome alternative” for controlling exposure to asbestos. Subsequently, two bills, one in 2002 and one in 2007, attempting to ban asbestos, never made it to the president’s desk. Some examples of products that remain in the U.S. markets are cement corrugated sheet, cement flat sheet, clothing pipeline wrap, roofing felts, vinyl floor tile, cement shingle, millboard, cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disk brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings, and roof coatings.
All the activity in the 70’s and 80’s did result in a major reduction of asbestos use overall; and ultimately the rate of asbestos use by the turn of the 21st century returned the rate of what was seen at the turn of the 20th century. By 2015, the U.S. was importing 343 tons of asbestos annually; mostly from Brazil and a smaller portion from Russia.
Most recently, in April of 2019, thirty years after the attempted ban on asbestos, the EPA set a rule that prevents asbestos products that have been discontinued from coming back on the market without review.
Asbestos in Building Materials
During its heyday, and before the bans of the 70’s and 80’s, asbestos ended up in a vast number of buildings in the U.S. It is still present in countless numbers of buildings and homes across the country requiring safe management and construction practices. It helps to know that undisturbed asbestos material that is in good condition does not pose a serious threat. It only becomes a problem when it is damaged, allowing the microscopic fibers to become airborne. If you own a building or are a facility manager, check out our prior blog, How to Safely Occupy a Commercial Building with Asbestos Present.
While it has been scientifically asserted that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and while more than 50 nations have banned it, it is indeed not completely banned in the U.S. However, the EPA continues to review the ongoing uses of asbestos, which is required by the Toxic Substance Control Act, and if unreasonable risk is found, action will be taken.
At RPF Environmental, Inc., we offer a variety of services related to finding and identifying asbestos. Our accredited laboratory can test for asbestos levels in waste materials, insulation, air, and water samples, and much more. We can give you a complete survey of your commercial structure’s asbestos risk. We can also prepare O&M programs and abatement specifications and help connect you with local asbestos abatement contractors once we identify the level of asbestos at your property.
Call RPF Environmental, Inc. at 603-942-5432 today for more information. Our certified asbestos inspection professionals offer their services throughout New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.