Do We Need to Worry About Asbestos Again?

Used since the late 1800s, asbestos has been restricted over the years. KPG_Payless/Shutterstock

Asbestos is a name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals that can be separated into soft, flexible fibers that are resistant to heat, fire and chemicals without conducting electricity. These qualities have made asbestos attractive to many industries. It was especially common in construction as a material used for insulation, fireproofing, roofing and sound absorption.

But for all its apparently beneficial qualities, the material has one gigantic downside: Inhaled asbestos fibers have been linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma and other diseases. Because of its status as a known carcinogen, asbestos has been banned in more than 50 countries. However, it can still be used (at least in some forms) in China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

Although the U.S. has tight restrictions on its use, that could be changing under a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule.

Asbestos in the U.S.

asbestos roof
For decades, asbestos was a common material in roofing. Tomas Ragina/Shutterstock

Asbestos has been used commercially in the U.S. since the late 1800s, according to the National Cancer Institute. It wasn't until the late 1970s the use of asbestos was banned in wallboard patching compounds and gas fireplaces because the asbestos fibers in these products could be released into the air.

In 1989, the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out rule banned all new uses of asbestos. Some uses for asbestos developed before 1989 are still allowed. The law specifically banned certain asbestos-containing products: flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial or specialty paper.

But now the EPA has made it easier for companies to introduce new products that contain asbestos, reports Fast Company.

In June, the EPA enacted a Significant New Use Rule (or SNUR) allowing manufacturers of new products that contain asbestos to petition and seek approval from the federal government on a case-by-case basis.

A piece in the New York Times points out that the Trump administration (after serious lobbying by the chemical industry) has changed the way the EPA will evaluate potentially harmful substances. In determining the risk, the agency will no longer consider any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, ground or water.

As Fast Company bluntly summarizes, the EPA is "effectively turning a blind eye to improper disposal, contamination, emissions, and other long-term environmental and health risks associated with chemical products, including those derived from asbestos.

"The Trump administration rewrote the rules to be dramatically less protective of human health ... experts who have looked at [the document] have said that in the end, it pretty much gives EPA discretion to do whatever it wants," Bill Walsh, board president of the Healthy Building Network, told Fast Company. The organization's goal is to offer transparency to the building products industry and includes a database cataloging the risks of more than 88,000 chemicals and materials.

"The EPA's failure to further regulate asbestos continues to provide a green light for its continued use in the U.S., even as it has been curtailed overseas," Walsh said.

Asbestos by the numbers

asbestos sign on fence
When you breathe in asbestos fibers, they can accumulate inside your lungs. Bronwyn Photo/Shutterstock

When you breathe in asbestos fibers, they can get trapped in your lungs. After a while, the fibers can accumulate and lead to inflammation and other issues, which can impact your breathing and trigger serious health problems.

According to the World Health Organization, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace right now. About half of deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. It's estimated that several thousand deaths each year are due to exposure to asbestos at home.

The rare disease mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure.

"I think that we need to look at an absolute ban," Mary Hesdorffer, executive director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, told NBC News. "We're supposed to be a leading nation, setting an example... We have really let down all of our partners by not banning this substance, there's just no excuse because there's no doubt — it's a known carcinogen."