In late November, the Brazilian Supreme Court enacted a ban on asbestos, deciding the mineral can no longer be mined, used, or sold in their country. This new law will have an effect on the United States, since about 95 percent of asbestos imported to the U.S. in 2016 came from Brazil. Most of the asbestos the U.S. imported was used to make chlorine, though the chlor-alkali industry is now starting to employ ion-exchange membranes, instead of the asbestos diaphragms they used in the past.
Following this ban, companies will either have to rely on Russia for their asbestos supply, or find alternate materials. Despite Brazil’s actions, it remains to be seen what effect this ban will have on U.S. policies toward the deadly carcinogen.
The Push for an Asbestos Ban (Part 2)
The Brazilian asbestos ban has given Democrats in the U.S. Congress another reason to push against the continued importation of asbestos. Many have argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should use the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to ban asbestos. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a member of the House of Representatives, pressed EPA Director Scott Pruitt on the matter in a recent meeting of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee.
Pallone pointed out that the EPA was scheduled to examine the manufacturing, processing, and distribution of asbestos, but not how it is used, or the means for disposal. These 2 occasions would be the main times workers could inhale the hazardous material, which is known to cause the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma. Pruitt concurred that the EPA should consider how asbestos is disposed of, but it remains to be seen how rigorous their analysis will be.
Asbestos Bans Are a Worldwide Phenomenon
The United States has fallen behind many industrialized countries which already have asbestos bans. Brazil is the most recent, but there is widespread, global recognition that asbestos is a very lethal substance. Fifty-five nations have banned asbestos, including Australia, Japan, Israel, and the European Union. Notably, China, Canada, Russia, the United States, and India have not banned asbestos, though the effects of Brazil’s ban on worldwide asbestos are yet unknown.
Lacking a ban, the toll of asbestos use in the United States is resoundingly clear. Asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma kill 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year.
While scientists have known that asbestos is a carcinogen for decades, and public advocates have continually pushed for restrictions and bans, industry — and its deep pockets — has always pushed back. While the EPA successfully banned asbestos in 1989, this act was overturned only 2 years later, after corporations protested the restriction. Due to those efforts, many goods that contain asbestos were still allowed to be sold in the U.S., including clothing, roofing and floor materials, and cement pipes, putting more Americans and American workers at risk.
When All Else Fails, Blame the Mob
Pruitt may have admitted the need to study asbestos disposal, but we cannot forget that he was nominated to his post by Donald Trump, who has ties to asbestos and corporate interests. While Trump has repeatedly claimed he will “put America first,” this only seems to hold true for the profits of American corporations, not for the health, safety, and well-being of the American public.
Most disturbing has been Trump’s continual assertions that asbestos is a “safe” building material, since he has famously, or infamously, alleged that the anti-asbestos campaign was derived not from science but controlled by the mob.
Further, Trump also claimed, in a now-infamous tweet, that if asbestos had not been removed from the Twin Towers, they would never have collapsed. Meanwhile, he has staunchly ignored the numerous cases of mesothelioma among 9/11 first responders, which were caused by asbestos-containing insulation in the World Trade Center.
Notably, Trump has also been sued for asbestos exposure by people who worked for his company on building projects. While this case was settled out of court, Trump has not missed an opportunity to protect corporate interests instead of victims.
Be Hopeful, and Vigilant
The United States no longer mines asbestos for production, and has not since 2002. Additionally, imports have dropped steadily over the past several years since the hazards of asbestos have become more and more publicly acknowledged. Many industries have found different materials to use, and advances in technology have meant asbestos is no longer needed to produce many goods.
But given the U.S.’s long history with asbestos, it’s no question that asbestos remains widespread in our country, in old buildings, structures, construction materials, and elsewhere.
At the same time, what seems like a simple solution to curbing asbestos-related deaths – banning the carcinogen – is not a given under an administration that is far more willing to listen to industry than the American public.
Pruitt and Trump’s EPA will not be in any great rush to enact this ban, which means public and Congressional pressure must continue. While an asbestos ban has been years in the making, there is no question it will be a gift to the nation.