There was a long period during American history when the general public was largely not aware of the dangers of asbestos. That is no longer the case. These days, most people are aware of the dangers of deadly asbestos fibers, though many erroneously assume the material has been banned in the U.S.
In the late 1970s, when the dangers of asbestos became public knowledge, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attempted to ban the mining of asbestos and the importation of raw asbestos and goods that contain measurable amounts of asbestos. Unfortunately, this law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court a couple of years of after it was enacted on grounds that EPA had overstepped its bounds and did not have the authority to create a law that affects interstate commerce without action from congress.
Today, the asbestos industry isn’t exactly thriving in the U.S., but neither is it dead.
Traditionally, federal agencies have the power to enforce laws and not create them. However, as we have seen with the recent actions to do away with the regulations requiring net neutrality, while an agency such as the FCC or FAA can make regulations as part of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFA), without he need for congressional approval, they cannot do so in every cases, and that is what the U.S. Supreme Court held in the early 1980s when it struck down what was essentially a total ban on asbestos. This does not mean congress could not create a law to be signed by the president to ban the mining, use, and production of asbestos across the nation, but this is not how things were done in the EPA’s attempt to ban asbestos.
There are however various regulations that makes it hard to use asbestos, the knowledge of the general public that asbestos causes various respiratory illness as well as a deadly form of caner known as malignant mesothelioma, has made it increasingly more difficult to use in it commercial and residential settings due to other regulations and push back from consumers.
Asbestos is however, still used in some industrial applications in factories in the U.S. It is not mined in the U.S. anymore and many of the existing mines have become environmental super fund sites, so it must be imported. One of the main uses for asbestos in the industrial setting in the U.S. is to make chlor-alkali products such as chlorine that is uses for many different purposes.
In the production of chlorine, the raw materials must be forced through a non-reactive diaphragm, which actually serves to strip the chemicals of certain compounds and impurities. These diaphragms, at least in the U.S. have been made using asbestos as it is resistant to so many things, but remains inert. In Europe, which has traditionally been much more environmentally conscious at a policy level than the U.S., this method has been largely phased out by using what are known as ion-exchange membranes. These new membranes do work in place of asbestos, but they are much more costly to produce. The current method in the U.S. still involves the use of mercury that must be isolated by the asbestos.
Since the U.S. still uses asbestos in the industrial sector, but cannot mine the mineral here, it must be imported. Two largest exporters of asbestos to the U.S. were Brazil and Russian, and now it looks like Russia will be the primary exporter of asbestos since Brazil is facing an export ban. According to recent news article from Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), Brazil has just enacted a total asbestos ban in their nation and this includes asbestos being shipped to the U.S. The ban was just implemented by the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil and it completely bans the mining, use, and sale of asbestos. Prior to this ban, exports of asbestos from Brazil accounted for 95 percent of all asbestos purchased by the U.S., with the remaining 5 percent being shipped to the U.S. from Russia. This means that currently, Russia will be the only country exporting asbestos the U.S.
In addition to the typical safety concerns involving the use of asbestos and asbestos products, some members of congress do not want the nation to be dependent upon Russia to supply asbestos since they have been accused by various intelligence agencies of trying to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.
Instead of finding other sources of asbestos however, congress members want the EPA to use its authority to list asbestos as harmful substance or toxic waste and this could prohibit the importation of asbestos from Russia or any other country. While this would typically be a good option, the list making authority was bestowed upon EPA largely during the Obama administration, and President Donald John Trump has expressed a desire to do away with EPA’s list of harmful chemical and possibly gut the EPA entirely. This is part of Mr. Trump’s plan to return the U.S. to the 1960s in terms of the number of regulations as the recently stated in his red tape cutting ceremony. While this may be a goal he can accomplish, people were not safer without many of these new regulations including treating asbestos as a toxic substance. This should not be hard since asbestos is well-known to have carcinogenic properties, but it is not really clear what will happen to the EPA and this list of toxic substances during the next few years.
As of now the list is still being developed and the EPA has been continuing its current plan to conduct a complete safety evaluation of asbestos in terms of mining, processing, distribution, and commercial and industrial use as part of the agencies plan to create the list of toxic substances.
In making its decision to ban the mining or asbestos and the use of the deadly asbestos fibers in their own country as well for bulk export, the agency says it will review all relevant information so the investigation is done in an objective manner.
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with mesothelioma in Boston, call for a free and confidential appointment at (617) 777-7777.
Brazil asbestos ban impacts U.S. imports, December 18, 2017, By Britt E. Erickson, Chemical & Engineering News
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Montana Settles Asbestos Claims for $25M, Feb. 19, 2017, Boston Mesothelioma Lawyer Blog