The science is abundantly clear—there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Between 1990-2019, more than 1 million Americans have been sickened by and died from asbestos-caused diseases, including cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries. The most well-known and aggressive asbestos-caused cancer, mesothelioma, is difficult to diagnose, and mesothelioma patients often die a painful death 12-14 months after diagnosis.
Without a total ban, companies continue to legally import hundreds of tons of raw asbestos and contaminated roofing products, gaskets, and friction products that contain asbestos, and it can still be found in homes, schools, and workplaces, and on consumer shelves.
Nearly 70 countries have banned asbestos to protect their residents from this harmful and often deadly toxin. Why is the U.S. still not on that list?
Asbestos Is an Environmental Justice Issue
Black, Brown, Indigenous and lower-wealth communities have disproportionately been the dumping grounds for our country’s deadliest toxic chemicals and pollutants, including asbestos. People living in these communities are more likely to live in older houses that contain asbestos, attend deteriorating schools built using asbestos that have yet to be properly renovated, and work in industries with high exposure and cancer risks.
For example, the chlor-alkali industry is the primary importer and user of raw chrysotile asbestos. The two main ports of entry are in New Orleans and Houston where 65% and 67.6% of the residents are Black or Hispanic, respectively.
In 2020, Louisiana and Texas imported nearly 300 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos. People can be exposed to asbestos as it is moved from the port to the plant, when it is used during the chlor-alkali process, and upon disposal.
These continuing actions have created sacrifice zones, filled with deteriorating homes and schools, smelters, coal-fired power plants, incinerators, petrochemical facilities, and a host of other polluters. Along with the deadly co-pollutants being pumped into the lungs of residents every day, sacrifice zones become killing fields.
These are the areas of the unseen and unheard, where bodies are riddled with chronic medical conditions such as cancers, liver, kidney, heart, and lung diseases, while also being the most medically underserved. And still, asbestos has not been banned.
Alarm Bells Are Ringing
In 2018 and 2019, the Food and Drug Administration issued four alerts for baby powder and cosmetic products that tested positive for asbestos—and that marketed to children and tweens. And still, the Environmental Protection Agency refused to ban it.
It is estimated that 1.3 million U.S. workers are at risk of asbestos exposure. According to the most recent data compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation, in 2019 alone, more than 40,000 deaths occurred in the U.S. following occupational asbestos exposure, meaning a U.S. worker died from an asbestos-related illness every 12 minutes. And still, the EPA refused to ban it.
The simple fact is this: All Americans remain at risk—children playing near landfills where asbestos-laden materials have been dumped, families who unknowingly live-in older houses built with asbestos, and even firefighters who put their lives on the line every day to extinguish fires in millions of homes and buildings across the U.S. that still contain asbestos. And still the EPA hasn’t banned it.
The Time for a Total Ban Is Now
At the end of 2020, Congress seemed to be on a path to do what the EPA refused to do: pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now (ARBAN) Act, landmark bipartisan legislation supported by nearly 70 co-sponsors, 18 attorneys general, and over 30 trade unions and organizations that would have banned the commercial imports and use of all asbestos-containing products in the U.S. once and for all.
We were wrong. The bill was never allowed to come up for a vote.
When President Barack Obama signed the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), he singled out one chemical. “Our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos,” Obama said.
Every day, we hear members of Congress and other government officials talk about “protecting our children” and “advancing environmental justice.” Talk is cheap. To do both, it’s time to put public health before private profit, close the loopholes and impose a complete ban on asbestos.
If the EPA won’t utilize its power under TSCA to protect the health of the American people, Congress must do its job and pass the 2021 ARBAN Act.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Linda Reinstein, whose husband died from mesothelioma in 2003, is the co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).
Mustafa Santiago Ali (Ph.D.), who was a founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), serves as vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation.