The Environmental Protection Agency issued a new regulation on Wednesday that will make it tougher to domestically manufacture, import or sell products made with asbestos, the toxic mineral that causes mesothelioma and other diseases.
The regulation closes a loophole in the partial ban of asbestos that was legislated almost 30 years ago.
It will strengthen the EPA’s ability to review and prohibit the use of a long list of asbestos products that are not banned but have been long abandoned by the industry.
The ruling is part of a legislative process that requires the EPA to review its regulation of asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Wednesday’s ruling was tougher than what the EPA originally proposed — and was loudly criticized for — in 2018.
But the agency’s decision still falls short of the complete ban of asbestos environmental groups and anti-asbestos advocates want.
Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, EPA assistant administrator, said the rule would “close the door on certain asbestos products to prevent them from returning to the marketplace.”
Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, called the regulation “toothless,” while insisting a total ban was necessary.
Under the new rule, companies would need EPA approval before importing most asbestos products.
“Prior to this new rule, EPA did not have the ability to prevent or restrict certain asbestos products from being reintroduced into the market,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Wheeler said the regulation gives the agency “unprecedented authority to protect public health.”
Earlier this month, he told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that he would commit to a ban of all current uses of asbestos.
Wednesday’s announcement fell short of that commitment.
“This new rule makes it more difficult for industry to resume some abandoned uses of asbestos, but that is a half step at best,” said attorney Melanie Benesh from the Environmental Working Group, an organization insisting on a total ban. “Administrator Wheeler should use the authority under the new Toxic Substances Control Act law and ban all uses of asbestos.”
Asbestos products covered by the new ruling include:
Asbestos products banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act are spray-on insulation, corrugated paper, flooring felt, commercial paper, rollboard and any new commercial uses that began after 1989.
Under its risk evaluation authority, the EPA already could restrict or ban other uses of asbestos products when necessary.
Asbestos products still legal and still being imported include:
More than 60 countries have banned asbestos, including the United Kingdom and Australia.
Mesothelioma specialist and thoracic surgeon Dr. Raja Flores at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York recently wrote an op-ed about the need for a total ban of asbestos in America.
The mining of asbestos in the United States stopped in 2002, and the importation has dropped significantly in recent decades.
The chloralkali industry used all of the 750 tons of raw asbestos imported in 2018, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries report.
Outside the chloralkali industry — which manufactures semipermeable diaphragms to make chlorine — no other asbestos-containing products are manufactured in the United States.
While any new uses of asbestos or the reintroduction of older uses will be difficult under the new regulation, the issue of legacy uses still pose a threat to public health.
Homes, schools, hospitals and most commercial structures built before 1990 likely still contain asbestos products.
As they age, the asbestos in these structures becomes more dangerous.
“A complete ban is appropriate, but this [regulation] is an easier thing to do. It’s something that should put a fence around the current uses,” Gary Timm of the Environmental Protection Network told the New York Times. “It’s a partial step, a good first step.”