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Why isn't asbestos banned in the United States?

Scientists have been aware of the dangers of asbestos for decades. Thousands of people die every year from mesothelioma, a disease for which asbestos exposure is the only proven trigger. The mineral is banned throughout Europe and other nations. But the United States has not yet banned it.

There have been efforts, but at this point, United States businesses can still import, recycle and use the known carcinogen. As PBS reports, the United States has imported more than 6,000 tons since 2011. This raises the question: Why?

Once a miracle fiber, now a silent killer

The truth is that asbestos isn’t a single mineral, but a category of several strong, stringy minerals. Due to its tremendous strength and resistance to heat, fire and electricity, they were used in a wide range of construction and industrial materials, as well as various household materials, including:

  • Cement
  • Insulation
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Fireproofing
  • Brake shoes
  • Hairdryers
  • Mock fireplace logs

However, the mineral’s strength and resilience are also part of the problem. Asbestos fibers hold together even after they’re absorbed into the human body. Over time, the presence of these fibers can lead to cancer and death.

Is the United States government failing to protect its citizens?

Given what scientists know about the dangers of asbestos, it’s little surprise that more than 60 countries have banned the mineral’s use and production. These nations include Brazil, which was previously one of the world’s leading producers. But the United States has not yet issued a full ban.

Instead, the government’s response has highlighted the many asbestos-driven tensions between safety and economics:

  • As PBS reports, the EPA issued an asbestos ban in 1989
  • The chemical industry fought to overturn that ban by 1991
  • The government introduced a new set of restrictions in 2016
  • Those were reinforced by the EPA’s April 2019 Final Rule, which still did not introduce a full ban

Unfortunately, the EPA’s Final Rule comes with loopholes. As The New York Times notes, it leaves businesses room to explore new uses for the known carcinogen and to readopt older uses with the EPA’s approval. Naturally, the EPA’s standards for approval can change with the agency’s policies and stances.

Governments and manufacturers are clear about the dangers

The EPA and the United States government may have given businesses some legal wiggle room to make use of asbestos, but there’s no question about the science. At this point, decision makers understand that asbestos is dangerous. It can cause cancer. Its continued use puts people at risk of exposure, and that exposure can have tremendously harmful consequences.

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