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What uses of asbestos does the EPA still allow?

Many years ago, the world thought of asbestos as a miracle fiber. It was tough and resilient, and it resisted both heat and fire. But then people learned it was also a carcinogen. After considerable delay, the government banned many of the mineral's uses.

Now, while many countries around the world have completely banned all uses of asbestos, the United States has outlawed most but allowed several exceptions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined these exceptions in its April 2019 Final Rule. But new evidence suggests these exceptions still expose workers to a heightened risk of cancer.

The ongoing risks of asbestos exposure

The EPA recently released a draft report on continued asbestos use. It explored the dangers the substance presents to those who work in the industries in which it's still allowed. The results? The EPA found asbestos presented an "unreasonable risk" to those who work with:

  • The chlor-alkali diaphragms used to create supplies of chlorine, sodium hydroxide and hydrogen
  • Sheet gaskets
  • Brake blocks
  • Aftermarket automotive brakes and linings
  • Other friction products used in vehicles

In short, the EPA found that workers in the industries still approved to use asbestos are at an increased risk of getting cancer. It also noted that even though workers may wear personal protective equipment while they perform some duties, few wear the gear for the entirety of their shifts.

As Chemical & Engineering News noted when they reported on the EPA's findings, the study didn't explore the dangers of "legacy uses" of asbestos, such as the old insulation and floor tiles still at use in older buildings. The EPA plans to investigate those uses in a later report.

A predictable response

The response from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) likely surprises no one. The ACC, which represents the chlor-alkali industry and others, argued that the EPA's results play up the risks workers face. They claim the EPA based its findings on "invalid assumptions."

The problem is that, for many, the studies on asbestos aren't about valid or invalid assumptions. They're about the deadly cancers that asbestos can cause. They're about how people suffer and lose time with their friends and family. And the EPA's latest report appears to confirm that most--if not all--remaining uses of asbestos continue to put people in harm's way.

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