Legislation is the act of making or enacting laws. Asbestos legislation in the United States has had a long history and is ever changing. Companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products knew that the mineral could cause deadly diseases if its fibers were inhaled, but hid the truth from the military and public for decades. It was not until the 1980s that laws were passed to limit asbestos use. Although asbestos exposure can cause deadly diseases, many asbestos-products are currently not banned in the United States.
The Need for Asbestos Legislation
By the end of the 20th century, asbestos had gone from a “miracle mineral” to a global danger. This naturally occurring mineral was valued for its strength, fire-resistant qualities, and affordability. But as scientists researched the link between asbestos and disease, it became clear that exposure to asbestos could be deadly.
Scientists found that asbestos fibers could not be broken down by the body and caused decades of damage.
This damage could lead to serious illnesses like:
Companies that made asbestos products knew the potential risks for decades. However, notable pieces of asbestos litigation (laws limiting asbestos use) were not established until the 1970s.
By that time, the rising awareness of asbestos as a health hazard had grown into a public concern. The secret was out that various industries had concealed the dangers of asbestos exposure to keep profits high.
The amount of asbestos legislation drastically increased in the 1980s, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempting to ban the mineral completely. However, a court decision in the early 1990s reversed a major ban on asbestos. As a result, asbestos is still used in the United States today.
Even when laws restricted the use of asbestos, hundreds of thousands of people had already been put at risk. Those who were exposed decades ago may be at risk of asbestos-caused diseases today.
The Early Asbestos Cover-Up
Starting with the Industrial Revolution, asbestos was widely used in many products and industrial applications. But scientists had linked asbestos to health problems as far back as the 1930s.
However, the asbestos industry knew that these studies would not be good for business and actively worked to discredit the findings.
The Washington Post analyzed internal documents from asbestos companies released during lawsuits in 1978. The documents reveal that lawyers for Johns-Manville, the largest U.S. producer of asbestos-containing materials at the time, asked scientists to soften studies that linked asbestos to lung damage.
The company even prevented scientists from releasing anti-asbestos studies. Other high-profile asbestos companies used similar tactics in an industry-wide cover-up.
The Beginnings of Asbestos Legislation
It was not until 1969 that Johns-Manville would pay $1 Million in workers compensation claims for 285 employees with asbestosis. By this point, asbestos was being regularly used in products to make buildings, vehicles, weapons, and construction materials.
However, as the dangers of asbestos became more widely known, the medical community published journal articles linking it to asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970 in response to these scientific findings. This act classified asbestos as a toxic chemical and allowed the newly-created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate its use.
However, these early precautions did not deter asbestos companies. In fact, most asbestos companies continued to discredit the scientific findings as they had done for decades.
Asbestos Legislation: The Sumner Simpson Papers
In 1977, the “Sumner Simpson Papers” came to play an important role in asbestos legislation history. The papers emerged during the discovery process in an asbestosis lawsuit. They detailed how Johns-Manville and other manufacturers of asbestos-containing products conspired to keep the dangers of asbestos hidden from their workers and the public.
The judge in the case ruled that there had been a “conscious effort” to conceal information to avoid lawsuits. This decision opened the floodgates for numerous asbestos claims shortly thereafter.
By 1978, the Washington Post reported that legal claims from victims of asbestos-related diseases totaled over $2 Billion.
Asbestos Litigation in the 1980s and 1990s
Faced with billions of dollars in lawsuits, the Manville Corporation (formerly Johns-Manville) filed for bankruptcy in 1982. This was one of the largest bankruptcies of the time.
Afterward, the nation’s federal bankruptcy laws were revised to allow companies to continue operating if they set up trusts to pay victims who could prove their asbestos-containing products caused diseases.
Other major asbestos companies like Owens-Corning, W.R. Grace, and U.S. Gypsum followed suit with their own asbestos bankruptcies.
In conjunction with these high-profile bankruptcies, the government passed new legislation to limit the use of asbestos moving forward and reduce the existing risks by removing asbestos products from older buildings.
This legislation included:
- Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule: The EPA introduced this rule in the late 1980s to ban asbestos from future use almost completely. This regulation went into effect in 1989, but it was short-lived. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned most of the rule in 1991, leaving only a handful of products still banned.
- Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act: This act became law in 1986 after a public uproar about asbestos in schools. The act called on the EPA to create asbestos regulations for schools with the goal of safely removing asbestos products from them. Those who would inspect and remove the asbestos had to be accredited by the EPA beforehand.
- Asbestos Information Act: This act was passed in 1988. It required the makers of asbestos products to report what products contained asbestos and how to identify the asbestos in them. The EPA would then compile a report on their findings.
- Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act: This act, passed in 1984, allowed schools to receive government funding for their asbestos removal projects. The initial act allocated $600 Million. This act was reauthorized in 1990 with additional funding.
Asbestos Use Today
Despite the well-known risks to human health, many asbestos-based products are still not banned in the United States. In recent years, attempts to update existing asbestos-related laws have failed, but agencies such as the EPA continue to push for better laws and regulations.
Until asbestos is significantly banned, it will continue to pose a threat to human health. Fortunately, there are options. Those who develop an asbestos-related disease can get financial compensation with a mesothelioma legal claim.
A mesothelioma legal claim allows victims to access the trust funds of asbestos companies. More than 50 trusts have been established in the last 30 years. The value of these funds is estimated at over $30 Billion, and that number is expected to rise.