EPA plots asbestos ban in landmark rule

By E.A. Crunden | 04/05/2022 01:30 PM EDT

Following decades of public anger, the agency is moving to ban the most common type of the carcinogen.

A sign warns of asbestos.

A sign warning of asbestos hanging on the outside of the former Camelot Hotel along Interstate 44 in Tulsa, Okla. AP Photo/Tulsa World, Tom Gilbert

This story was updated at 3:41 p.m. EDT.

EPA is taking steps to ban the most common type of asbestos with a first-of-its-kind proposal after years of pressure from advocates, who have long said the agency’s inaction on the carcinogen is a failure of U.S. chemicals policy.

Importing raw chrysotile asbestos and chrysotile-containing products will be barred under an EPA proposal announced today. Chrysotile accounts for the overwhelming majority of asbestos entering the United States and is used for items like sheet gaskets, brake blocks and aftermarket automotive brakes.


“Today, we’re taking an important step forward to protect public health and finally put an end to the use of dangerous asbestos in the United States,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement.

He added that the ban would protect the U.S. public and “demonstrates significant progress” in implementing federal chemicals law.

Under the rule, prohibitions targeting asbestos diaphragms and sheet gaskets for commercial use would take effect two years after finalization. Similar prohibitions targeting other industrial uses would take effect within 180 days. EPA anticipates that, in addition to protecting the public from cancer, the rule will “generate health benefits from reduced air pollution associated with electricity generation” by the chlor-alkali industry — the last remaining importer of raw asbestos into the country. That industry produces chlorine through a process that can include chrysotile asbestos diaphragms.

The Chlorine Institute, a trade organization representing members of the chlor-alkali industry, said via email this afternoon that it was still reviewing the proposed rule. “Throughout the risk evaluation and now the risk management phase of this process we have advocated for a science-based approach from EPA, with attention to the details of each specific condition of use,” said Robyn Brooks, a spokesperson. “We are combing through the details of the proposed rule and will formerly submit a comment letter to EPA in the public docket.”

Other industry members also signaled they would be fighting the rule following EPA’s announcement. Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, panned the proposed rule and said it would “have unintended consequences on safe drinking water and our already-precarious supply chain of consumer products.”

Durbin urged EPA to “take a more realistic approach” to any crackdown. “Asbestos is used in the production of chlorine, which is critical to treating drinking water and in the manufacturing of many pharmaceutical, bleach and medical goods,” he said. “The use of asbestos in the chlor-alkali process is tightly regulated and used safely every day.”

Notably, the Biden administration’s actions on asbestos show movement on a toxics issue that remains among the most contentious for public health advocates. Asbestos has been established as deadly to humans for decades, but under an older version of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the government was unable to truly ban the naturally occurring minerals. Resistance has been stiff from some industry members, including the chlor-alkali industry.

In 1991, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals largely overturned an EPA effort to ban asbestos. When Congress overhauled TSCA in 2016, many figures cited asbestos as a leading reason for giving the national chemicals law more teeth (Greenwire, March 12, 2021). But efforts to ban asbestos have still faced an uphill climb.

While asbestos was among the first 10 chemicals evaluated under the new TSCA, the Trump administration sought to exclude legacy uses and a number of exposure pathways. Litigation and a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of critics ultimately led EPA to release a “part one” asbestos evaluation. The second part, the agency said, would include the missing elements.

Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, has pointed to asbestos as a priority area for the agency. Still, fights over the carcinogen remained heated under the Biden administration before taking a turn. Last October, EPA agreed to wrap up the “part two” assessment for asbestos by Dec. 1, 2024, while assessing many of the components left out of the original evaluation (Greenwire, Oct. 14, 2021).

Today’s announcement builds on that agreement. And the leading voice calling for a government crackdown on asbestos, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, praised the agency for taking action.

“We strongly support putting an end to the dangerous use of asbestos by the chlor-alkali industry, which has irresponsibly failed to adopt proven non-asbestos technology in the decades since it became available,” said ADAO President and CEO Linda Reinstein.

But the nonprofit organization also highlighted some qualms with the agency’s move and framing. Among other things, the rule does not affect the other five recognized types of asbestos fibers: crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite.

Bob Sussman, a former EPA official now serving as ADAO’s counsel, said that omission was a sign that legislation is needed to further rein in asbestos exposure. The “Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act” — named after Linda Reinstein’s husband, who passed away due to asbestos-related cancer— has been introduced in both the House and Senate several times over the years but never passed.

“Legislation would ban all six recognized asbestos fiber types,” said Sussman in a statement. “Without legislation, current and future exposure to asbestos fibers that have the same lethal properties as chrysotile will continue.”