Under the original Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was given the power to regulate new chemicals coming onto the market in the US. A 2016 amendment to the TSCA requires the EPA to examine the hazards presented by chemicals that are already on the market. The first list of the chemicals to be reviewed includes asbestos. This gives the agency another chance to protect Americans from the dangers of asbestos toxicity.
A Brief History of Asbestos
Asbestos is a family of six silicate minerals that have long, thin, strong fibers. The chrysotile type of asbestos is mostly found in Canada and has curled fibers. The other types are classified as amphibole asbestos, which has pointed, sharp, straight fibers. Two amphibole types (amosite and crocidolite) as well as chrysotile asbestos have been widely used in manufacturing. Two other types of amphibole asbestos, tremolite and actinolite, were widely distributed because they contaminated a large vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, and other mines that produced talc, even though they don’t have commercial use on their own.
Humans started putting the heat-resistant mineral to use thousands of years ago. Ancient pottery excavated in Finland contained asbestos fibers. The ancient Greeks and Romans described its properties. In Persia, cloths woven with asbestos that could be cleaned by fire rather than water were a prestige possession.
It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that asbestos was put to large-scale industrial use, after large deposits were discovered in Canada. More deposits were discovered over the following decades and the industrial revolution soon put asbestos to work without any consideration of asbestos toxicity. Asbestos has been mined across the globe, including in South Africa, Russia, Italy, Brazil and various locations in the United States.
The mineral resists acid as well as heat and the fibers are strong. Asbestos has been woven into fabric and added to a wide variety of materials, from cement to pipe fittings, to insulation, to brake pads. It was used in the theater curtains and dental casts. Talc products have been contaminated with asbestos toxicity because asbestos deposits sometimes run through many talc mines.
Asbestos Toxicity Uncovered
When asbestos use increased at the advent of the industrial era, the incidence of diseases caused by asbestos toxicity also increased. Medical researchers first started studying the health effects of asbestos exposure around the turn of the 20th century, as they noticed that an unusual number of people were dying of lung problems in towns with asbestos mines. The first recorded death from asbestos toxicity happened in 1906.
By the 1920s and 1930s, enough workers were suffering from the health effects of asbestos toxicity that governments took notice. Asbestos began to be linked with lung diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. The US government instituted some workplace regulations to protect employees from asbestos exposure in the 1930s.
This didn’t stop asbestos from finding its way into consumer products, however. One cigarette maker even added asbestos to a cigarette filter during the 1950s.
Asbestos toxicity might still be widespread today if the people injured by asbestos exposure hadn’t started to fight back. By the early 1970s, an avalanche of lawsuits against manufacturers such as the Johns Manville Company led to major changes in the industry. Some companies that had exposed their employees to asbestos for years were forced into bankruptcy. It became impossible to ignore the toxic effects of asbestos exposure.
Another important development happened around this time: the EPA was founded in 1970. This agency was a sign of the US government’s growing commitment to a safe and clean environment. It didn’t mean that regulating asbestos toxicity would be easy.
The Lautenberg Act and EPA Review of Chemicals Already on the Market
In 2016, congress passed and the president signed the Lautenberg Act. The new law updates the TSCA with a mandate to review chemicals that are already being sold to make sure they are safe. It also sets deadlines for this review.
Near the end of 2016, the EPA released a list of the first 10 chemicals it would review. Here’s the complete list:
- 1,4-Dioxane: lab chemical
- 1-Bromopropane: solvent
- Asbestos: used in a variety of materials
- Carbon Tetrachloride: degreaser
- Cyclic Aliphatic Bromide Cluster: fire retardant
- Methylene Chloride: solvent
- N-methylpyrrolidone: component in plastics
- Pigment Violet 29: paint pigment
- Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene: used in dry cleaning
- Trichloroethylene: refrigerant
These chemicals present a variety of human health hazards. Many of them are possible human carcinogens. Perchloroethylene, which has been found to contaminate water supplies in numerous communities, is a likely human carcinogen.
Only asbestos is a known human carcinogen. This makes it all the more urgent that the EPA regulate asbestos and protect workers and consumers from asbestos toxicity.
EPA’s Attempts to Regulate Asbestos Toxicity
This current review isn’t the first time the EPA has set out to regulate asbestos. In 1990, the EPA implemented a rule that banned the import of products containing asbestos into the US. The rule also blocked any new applications of asbestos and banned its use in roofing materials, flooring felt, clothes, tile, and sheeting.
Two additional phases were planned by the EPA. In 1993, the original rule would have stopped the use of asbestos in brakes and other components subject to friction – which can lead to asbestos toxicity in the air due to airborne fibers (friable). The final phase, scheduled for 1996, would have added more building materials plus brake blocks to the list of items that could not contain asbestos.
EPA regulation of asbestos toxicity was stopped, however, by a 1991 court ruling. The court said that the first phase of regulations could stand, but that the next two phases needed to be scrapped until the agency tried less restrictive regulations.
As a result of this lawsuit, which hobbled the EPA’s efforts to protect US citizens from asbestos toxicity, this toxic mineral is still used in some applications in the US today. Because of consumer pressure, however, it is much less widely available. The last two asbestos mines in Canada, which supplied much of the US market, have closed down.
Despite all that we know about the harmful effects of asbestos toxicity, this hazardous substance remains all around us in buildings and machinery. The EPA’s current mandate to reexamine asbestos regulations is a welcome step toward creating a safer environment and protecting future generations from asbestos toxicity.
What are your concerns about asbestos in your environment? Do you think the EPA should ban all asbestos use? Would it be better to allow limited use of asbestos, within safety guidelines? If you worked around asbestos in the past, do you think safety regulations can protect workers from the dangers of asbestos toxicity? Your voice on this issue is important. We look forward to sharing your insights with our readers.