Why Is It Still Necessary to Test for Asbestos?

The EPA first partially banned asbestos for some applications in 1973. It followed up with a ban on additional applications in 1975, 1978, 1989, 1990 and 2019 . It hasn’t been mined in the US since 2002. Over 20 years later, we’re still testing for asbestos. Why?

The Typical Rise and Fall of Hazardous Chemicals

You might think that the history of asbestos was similar to the rise and fall of other chemicals with adverse effects.

First, chemists discover a chemical with remarkable properties. Then, industrial companies find a valuable application for the chemical. The chemical grows in popularity until it’s used everywhere. With so many people using it everywhere, overexposure results in negative health effects. When enough bad health effects are well known, regulatory bodies step in to limit the chemical’s use or ban it altogether.

This path from discovery to widespread exposure to regulation applies to many hazardous chemicals like lead.

But, just because we are enlightened about the adverse effects of a hazardous chemical like asbestos doesn’t mean that all regulations are successful. Despite being banned in 60 countries worldwide, asbestos is not fully banned in the United States.

The History of Asbestos Use

Humans have been using asbestos throughout much of civilization. It’s been found in Stone Age ceramic pots, Egyptian tombs, Grecian cloth and Roman ceremonial candles. The point of using it for candle wicks was that its fire-resistant qualities made the wicks burn longer. In fact, the name “asbestos” comes from the Greek word for unquenchable.

During the Industrial Revolution, Canadians discovered asbestos deposits in Quebec that were plentiful enough to begin large mining operations. The abundance of asbestos from this point onward made it possible to use it in many applications.

“Unquenchable” became an ironic name for asbestos as its ability to quench fires inspired its use in construction applications.

From almost the outset of its use, adverse health effects were obvious. This quote from an 1898 report focuses on the negative health effects of factory workers developing asbestos products.

“The evil effects of asbestos dust have also attracted my attention, a microscopic examination of this mineral dust which was made by H.M. Medical Inspector clearly revealed the sharp, glass-like, jagged nature of the particles, and where they are allowed to rise and to remain in the air of a room, any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected.”

1898 Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops in UK

Despite these early warnings and the coining of a new “asbestosis” diagnosis, factories continued to produce asbestos products for use in shingles, ceiling tiles, flooring, vermiculite insulation, concrete, ductwork, attics and basements.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a renewed interest in banning asbestos on the grounds that it could cause cancer would result in some regulatory changes.

The History of EPA Asbestos Regulation

With the knowledge of how dangerous asbestos is to the lungs, the EPA started with banning spray-on fireproofing insulation that contained asbestos in 1973. The EPA would follow up on this ban in 1978 with an additional ban on spray-on applications not already banned under the 1973 regulations.

Next on the chopping block was asbestos block insulation and pipe insulation. The EPA banned these applications (so long as they were friable) in 1975.

In July 1989, the EPA decided that it was time to issue a more comprehensive ban on asbestos. It was at this point that the regulation hit a hiccup.

The Failure of the 1989 Ban

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) would have provided a full asbestos ban and phase-out. It would have blocked manufacturing, importing, processing, or distributing asbestos for the majority of applications.

This regulation faced fierce opposition from the asbestos manufacturers, who suggested that the job losses and economic impact would be too severe. Asbestos-producing companies sued the EPA.

In 1991, Corrosion Proof Fittings v. Environmental Protection Agency decided the fate of a full ban on asbestos. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the outright banning of asbestos was more aggressive than it needed to be. If the EPA’s goals were to keep the public safe from asbestos, it could regulate the material without shutting down an entire industry. The court claimed that the EPA didn’t convincingly prove that the ban was the “least burdensome” tool in its toolbox.

If the 1989 ban was a hammer, the result of the overturned ban was a scalpel. The ban could only apply to new uses of asbestos products and 5 specific applications.

What’s the Future of Asbestos and Testing for It

The EPA continues to fight an uphill battle against the “least burdensome” constraint. In April 2022, it introduced a Proposed Ban of Ongoing Uses of Asbestos.

It may be a long time until asbestos is fully banned in the United States. It may be even longer until the material is no longer a lingering carcinogen affecting many people.

That’s why it’s so important to continue to test for asbestos anywhere it could show up.  EHS offers testing to help ensure your workplace is free of harmful products. If you have any questions about our asbestos-testing process, get in touch.