Almost two years after we wrote about a seemingly imminent ban, it’s finally happened: the United States has ended the last uses of asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a complete ban on the import or use of chrysotile asbestos, with a rapid end to its applications in vehicles, and a phased removal from manufacturing.

Coming 25 years after the UK banned all forms of asbestos – and more than 40 years after it was banned in Iceland – the U.S. has been one of the last holdouts among western countries in using the deadly substance. So why now, why has it taken so long – and what does a total asbestos ban actually mean for U.S. residents and industries?

Asbestos in the United States

The ban announced by the EPA is the culmination of an effort that began in 1975. This was when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first declared asbestos a carcinogen, and attempted to impose a much lower ‘safe exposure’ threshold, an idea which was canned by industry lobbying. Repeated efforts over the following years met with equally little success – until the EPA finally stepped in to help.

In 1989, the EPA used the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (an act which allowed it to regulate hazardous chemicals) to issue a rule banning all manufacturing, distribution and imports of asbestos or asbestos products. However, the asbestos industry took the issue to court, and managed to successfully overturn the majority of the rule in 1991. What survived was the ban on new uses of asbestos – something that’s now coming to bear today.

Asbestos in America today represents a tiny fraction of manufacturing and industrial output. The remaining uses of asbestos are limited to chrysotile (white) asbestos, which is considered the least deadly variant of asbestos. It is predominantly used in the creation of chlorine used for drinking water, as well as in a handful of car components. These industries will have up to 12 years to phase asbestos out completely, meaning an absolute end to asbestos use is still some time away.

Why asbestos wasn’t banned before

One of the biggest drivers for a total asbestos ban in Europe was the European Union, and the growing pressure from a few member states to enforce a ban across the continent. Iceland was the first country to ban the substance, and other nations who had widely used asbestos in post-War reconstruction had suffered greatly from the toll of asbestos-related diseases. Many had already banned all but chrysotile asbestos by the 1980s, and saw the writing on the wall well before the EU banned the sale of asbestos products in 2005.

The strong regulatory regime and universal standards of the EU stand in contrast to the American model. While OSHA has been a world-leader in workplace safety, the EPA has been variously shackled by the presidents it has operated under, and its vulnerability to being challenged by state and federal courts. The result is that the EPA has been relatively powerless to implement changes that – as a result of industry lobbying – there has been little political will to push through.

The reason this has changed now is threefold. One is that the EPA has been bolstered by the current Democratic President, and his environmental policy platform. The second is that active uses of asbestos are now limited to a handful of relatively minor industries, which lack the lobbying power they once had. And the third is that the asbestos products are largely reaching end-of-life, and would have had to be phased out anyway over the next couple of decades.

The fight against asbestos – and for supporting victims of asbestos – has also been a public issue in a way it maybe hasn’t been elsewhere. The ongoing plight of 9/11 first responders and the battle to renew their compensation and medical coverage has been a recurring issue in recent years, spearheaded by comedian Jon Stewart. The very public suffering of the victims, in large part due to the asbestos present in the collapsed buildings, has put the effects and legacy of asbestos centre stage.

What the asbestos ban means for America

The U.S. has finally joined a majority of countries worldwide who have ended all legal uses of asbestos. Perhaps more pointedly, it’s left a group containing the likes of Russia and China, who still produce and use asbestos to cheaply accommodate growing populations. In this sense, there may be a political edge to the decision, both in distancing themselves from these countries and preventing the importation of their products.

The delay for the ban also speaks to the broader U.S. regulatory model. While the EPA has taken a much more active role in public safety than some agencies, others – such as the Food and Drug Administration – reflect a general bias towards proving that something is harmful before banning it, rather than only allowing it when it’s proved to be harmless. This has led to issues such as PFAS (forever chemicals) causing substantial damage to the environment and people’s health, while vested interests try to slow down and obfuscate the research into them.

It should also be noted that the deadline for ending the use of asbestos is still some years away, with a 12-year deadline for eliminating asbestos from the production of chlorine. Given that the chlorine is used in drinking water, this may be an ongoing cause for concern, given the propensity for asbestos fibres to leach into water. However, the method has been used for many decades, and is considered safe. The use of asbestos for other purposes will end much sooner, with automotive products only having a six-month window.

What the new ruling doesn’t address however is the toxic legacy of asbestos. Banning the product is one thing, but it still remains in many thousands of properties and products up and down the country. And given the latency for asbestos-related diseases, it’s likely that many people will continue to die prematurely for several decades to come. But the importance of the ban both as a symbolic and tangible step can’t be overstated. A ban is a major blow to the asbestos industry – and likely a precursor to further action.

We are now closer to a total global ban on asbestos, but the war is far from won. The long latency of asbestos-related diseases, and the huge amount of asbestos still in buildings, products and on brownfield sites around the world, mean we will be dealing with asbestos and its deadly legacy for hundreds of years to come. For the U.S. though, there’s reason to be positive – and a boost in the ongoing battle for public health.

Interested in increasing your own knowledge of asbestos? Our UKATA Asbestos Awareness course teaches you about asbestos, how to identify it and what to do if you find it – useful for avoiding the thousands of tonnes of asbestos still in place in the UK.