In April 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action to protect people from asbestos exposure by releasing a proposed rule to prohibit ongoing uses of the only known form of asbestos currently imported into the United States. This proposed rule is the first-ever risk management rule issued under the new process for evaluating and addressing the safety of existing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that was enacted in 2016.
The EPA “is taking an important step forward to protect public health and finally put an end to the use of dangerous asbestos in the United States,” according to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This historic proposed ban would protect the American people from exposure to chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, and demonstrates significant progress in our work to implement the TSCA law and take bold, long-overdue actions to protect those most vulnerable among us.”
If enacted, the proposed rule would ban chrysotile asbestos. Chrysotile is the only known form of asbestos that’s currently imported into the United States. This form of asbestos is found in products such as asbestos diaphragms (used in chlorine production), sheet gaskets, brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets imported into the U.S.
Previous Calls to Ban Asbestos
The current proposal by the EPA is not the first effort made by the U.S. government to reduce the amount of asbestos products being used in the United States. If enacted, the new rule would rectify a 1991 court decision that largely overturned the EPA’s 1989 ban on asbestos and significantly weakened the EPA’s authority to address risks to human health from asbestos or other chemicals. A previous attempt to ban asbestos was made by President George H.W. Bush’s EPA chief, and President Obama’s EPA chief called on Congress to ban asbestos “without loopholes or exemptions.”
The use of asbestos is banned in over 50 countries. With the 2016 amendments to TSCA, the law was radically transformed with clear requirements and a mandate to comprehensively prioritize and evaluate chemicals and put in place strong and timely protections against any unreasonable risks. Although there are several known types, the only form of asbestos known to be currently imported, processed, or distributed for use in the United States is chrysotile.
Asbestos Products “At Risk”
To address these unreasonable risks, the proposed rule would prohibit manufacture (including import), processing, distribution in commerce, and commercial use of chrysotile asbestos for six categories of chrysotile asbestos-containing products: asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets. The proposed prohibition on the manufacture, processing, and distribution in commerce will also address consumer exposure to chrysotile asbestos. The prohibitions relating to asbestos diaphragms and sheet gaskets for commercial use are proposed to take effect two years after the effective date of the final rule; the proposed prohibitions relating to oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets for commercial use are proposed to take effect 180 days after the effective date of the final rule.
Chlor-alkali chemicals are used in sectors important to the national economy and in operations that can help protect human health such as drinking water treatment, which uses chlorine manufactured through the chlor-alkali process. While chlorine is a commonly used disinfectant in water treatment, there are only 10 chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. that still use asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. Alternatives to asbestos-containing diaphragms for chlor-alkali plants exist, and the use of alternatives, specifically membrane cells, accounts for almost half of the country’s chlor-alkali production.
Anticipated Environmental Benefits
In addition to addressing the significant human health effects of chrysotile asbestos exposure, the proposal, if finalized, is expected to generate health benefits from reduced air pollution associated with electricity generation as chlor-alkali production is one of the most energy-intensive industrial operations. Environmental justice concerns in communities surrounding some of the affected chlor-alkali facilities and other chemical manufacturers would also benefit from reduced levels of soot and other air pollution from the electricity generation needed to support these facilities.
- In 1973, EPA banned spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing material for fireproofing/insulating purposes. See National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) at 40 CFR Part 61, Subpart M.
- In 1975, EPA banned installation of asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos block insulation on facility components, such as boilers and hot water tanks, if the materials are either pre-formed (molded) and friable or wet-applied and friable after drying. See National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) at 40 CFR Part 61, Subpart M.
- In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and wall patching compounds. (See 16 CFR Part 1305 and 16 CFR 1304).
- In 1978, EPA banned spray-applied surfacing materials for purposes not already banned. See National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) at 40 CFR Part 61, Subpart M.
- In 1989, EPA attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products by issuing a final rule under Section 6 of Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). However, most of the original ban on the manufacture, importation, processing, or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered in the 1989 final rule was overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, the 1989 asbestos regulation only bans new uses of asbestos in products that would be initiated for the first time after 1989 and bans 5 other specific product types. See 40 CFR 763 Subpart I. Learn more about the 1989 asbestos ban and phase-out.
- In 1990, EPA prohibited spray-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits unless certain conditions specified. See National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) at 40 CFR 61, Subpart M are met.
- In 2019, EPA issued a final rule to ensure that discontinued asbestos products cannot be reintroduced into commerce without the Agency evaluating them and putting in place any necessary restrictions or prohibiting use. Read the final rule.
Opportunity to Comment
Public comments will be accepted by the EPA on the proposed rule for chrysotile asbestos for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register at www.regulations.gov .