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Outside the Box: Asbestos still hides in homes, schools and workplaces, and a U.S. ban is long overdue

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Next week marks the start of Asbestos Awareness Week, a week dedicated to increasing awareness of the dangers posed by asbestos and preventing exposure to this deadly substance. To ensure Americans are safe from asbestos exposure, the United States needs to ban the import of asbestos, a documented carcinogen that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined presents an unreasonable health risk

Like thousands of innocent Americans, Linda Reinstein’s husband Alan was exposed to asbestos at work and home without ever knowing it. He fought a courageous three-year battle against mesothelioma and passed away in 2006.

Although Congress has yet to pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now (ARBAN) Act, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) continue to champion the bill for reintroduction. If passed, the ARBAN Act would prevent thousands of Americans like Alan from suffering or dying from asbestos exposure. 

Many Americans think of asbestos as a problem that’s mostly in the past, but this is a misconception. Each year, tens of thousands of Americans die from preventable asbestos-caused diseases, including mesothelioma, a cancer in the inner lining of the chest, and lung, larynx and ovarian cancer.  

Although asbestos fibers are too small for people to see, their deadly dangers are well-documented. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration makes it clear that “there is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.” Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of airborne fibers in the workplace and in homes built with asbestos-contaminated materials.

It’s been almost 40 years since the EPA studied the risk of legacy asbestos — asbestos that was used in either the construction of buildings or the manufacturing of products, machinery and equipment, and is still found in homes, schools, factories and other structures. Finally, after losing a lawsuit, the EPA is taking steps to fulfill its obligation under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 to evaluate the risks of legacy asbestos. In the meantime, Americans risk exposure to this toxic material — especially when natural disasters such as fires, tornadoes or hurricanes destroy buildings.

Once considered a “magic mineral,” asbestos fibers are strong, heat-resistant, waterproof and cheap. Asbestos was widely used throughout most of the 20th century in a variety of industries including construction, fireproofing, insulation and shipbuilding. Because of public awareness of the dangers of asbestos, relatively little has been used this century, but between 1900 and 2000, the U.S. consumed more than 31.5 million metric tons of asbestos.  

Legacy asbestos isn’t the only threat. Without a ban, the chlor-alkali industry imports hundreds of tons of raw chrysotile asbestos into the U.S. from Brazil and Russia each year to manufacture industrial chlorine and caustic soda, which are used to make a wide variety of commercial products, such as industrial vinyl and cleaning products. During a meeting with the EPA in January 2017, industry representatives stated that in the United States, three companies — Olin Corp.
OLN,
-1.17%
,
Occidental Chemical Corp.
OXY,
-3.53%

and Westlake Corp.
WLK,
-1.61%

— own a total of 15 plants that continue to fabricate and use semipermeable diaphragms that contain chrysotile asbestos in their chlorine production processes. 

“ Close to 70 countries have banned asbestos to protect public health, but the U.S. has not.”

The continued use of asbestos is particularly maddening because safer alternatives exist. Substitutes include calcium silicate, carbon fiber, cellulose fiber, ceramic fiber, glass fiber, steel fiber, wollastonite, and several organic fibers, such as aramid, polyethylene, polypropylene and polytetrafluoroethylene. Several non-fibrous minerals or rocks, such as perlite, serpentine, silica and talc, are also considered to be possible asbestos substitutes.

It’s scary how frequently asbestos hides in plain sight. Over the years, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), has found asbestos in five consumer products and children’s toys. In 2018, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund found asbestos in Claire’s makeup products and Playskool crayons

Close to 70 countries have banned asbestos to protect public health, yet because of the influence of money on politics, the U.S. has not. While the EPA should continue its efforts to regulate and eliminate asbestos, Congress needs to take immediate action on the ARBAN Act to prevent more unnecessary disease and death. We deserve to live free of toxic, cancer-causing asbestos.

Linda Reinstein is co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). Faye Park is president of Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

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