Posted on: August 16, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that can be weaved into fabrics. It was primarily used in fire-resistant clothing and insulation.[1]  Chances are if a school was built before1980, it probably contains asbestos. Almost half of all US schools were constructed between 1950 and 1969. At that time the use of asbestos in construction was very widespread. If these materials are disturbed by maintenance or begin to deteriorate, asbestos dust can enter the air and be inhaled.

asbestos dust

Adverse Health Effects

Contact with or inhalation of asbestos is linked to mesothelioma and other cancers and diseases.[3] In many cases, symptoms do not present for 30-40 years.[2]

Breathing asbestos can cause tiny asbestos fibers to get trapped in lungs. After exposure, asbestos can’t be removed from the lungs. Lung tissue becomes irritated. Non-cancerous diseases such as Asbestosis and Pleural disease can lead to breathing difficulties and reduced lung function.[2]

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the membrane enveloping the lung, or membranes covering other internal organs.[2]

Lung cancer: The combination of tobacco use and exposure to asbestos significantly increases the odds of developing lung cancer. [2]


In April of this year, The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) revealed that Asbestos-related deaths totaled nearly 40,000 annually. Lung cancer and mesothelioma were the most frequent illnesses associated with the toxin.[3]

Asbestos fibers cancer hazard

Wait, didn’t we ban asbestos years ago?


Not exactly.

Miners and factory workers were the first to exhibit symptoms as early as the mid-1920s.[4] It wasn’t until the 1970s that government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were formed to restrict exposure to harmful pollutants such as asbestos.[5]

In 1973, under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Air Act, most spray asbestos products were banned for fireproofing and insulating use. [5,9]

In 1989, the EPA recognized that health hazards existed and mostly banned asbestos. However, in 1991 most of the original ban was overturned. Consequently, only new uses of asbestos products initiated after 1989 were banned along with 5 other specific product types.[9]

No outright ban was placed on asbestos, however many industries made the choice to reduce or stop the use of asbestos due to lawsuits stemming from health issues of workers.[3]

Today, in the U.S., asbestos is used industrially to make chlorine.  Chlorine-based plastics such as PVC and vinyl are used as building-product materials. Pipes, tiles, flooring, adhesives, paints, and roofing products are byproducts of this process. [5]

Even Talcum powder has been linked to mesothelioma caused by asbestos.

The United States in one of the few developed countries that still permits limited use for products such as gaskets, roofing materials, and sealants.[6]

Asbestos has not been mined or produced in the United States since 2002.[5] Prior to Brazil’s own ban on asbestos last year, they supplied 95 percent of the asbestos used in America.  Russia has since become the new supplier.[7]


Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA)

An amendment to the chemical law in 2016 called the ‘significant new-use rule” (SNUR), mandates that the EPA review risks associated with various chemicals. The agency decides which types of asbestos uses pose enough of a risk to evaluate and possibly limit or ban.[6, 10]

The EPA states that this is good news, because asbestos use was not banned in the first place.  Any given company could choose to commence using the product without any policy in place.

Nancy B. Beck, scientist, and the E.P.A.’s deputy assistant administrator states:

“If you want to put asbestos in flooring materials you have to come to us first and we have to do a thorough risk evaluation and approve it,” she said. “Or we simply prohibit it.”[6]

Given that according to OSHA “There is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber,”[8] is it enough to simply regulate or reduce the use?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) supports a full ban on asbestos. The EWG is calling for a stronger evaluation of asbestos.[6]


Melanie Benesh, an attorney working at EWG on toxic chemical concerns, has this to say:   “There is lots of asbestos still out in the environment, particularly in older homes and schools,” she said, and the agency’s assessment processes does not take into account those legacy uses.[6]

Leaked EPA E-mails

In April, a last minute change was made to the proposal. Rather than including all new uses of asbestos in the E.P.A.’s review, the rule would include only 15 specific uses that would prompt an evaluation.[7,12]

The wording of the new rule leaves some questions, not only in the public’s mind, but also the EPA’s own scientists and lawyers.

It is noteworthy that Susan Fairchild, Senior Environmental Scientist of the  US Environmental Protection Agency, made her opinion known in an internal email :

“But isn’t the list of uses that are no longer ongoing actually a very, very long list? And wouldn’t it include not only the list of manufactured asbestos containing products listed prior to the ban and phase out rule, but also any other new product?”[7,12]

Fairchild’s concern was that if the EPA failed to list one of the old discontinued uses or did not anticipate a particular new use, that the manufacturer of said product would not be held accountable under the SNUR. A loophole could exist.

How can we totally eliminate the use of asbestos? According to Healthy Building Network Board President Bill Walsh, it will be up to local and state governments, individual companies and consumers to bring change.

Environmentally responsible product manufacturers and architects can revolutionize the industry. If health-based criteria are included in the design plan, this could sway the manufacture from asbestos use and toward safer options.[3]


  1. Is the EPA Allowing for the Approval of New Asbestos-Containing Products? Snopes.
    accessed August 14, 2018.

  2. Health Effects of Asbestos. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. accessed August 14, 2018.
  3. EPA is now allowing asbestos back into manufacturing. Sydney Franklin et al. The Architects Newspaper August 6, 2018. accessed August 14, 2018.

  4. Protecting the Workers: The Medical Board and the Asbestos Industry, 1930s-1960s. TWEEDALE, G., & HANSEN, P., et al (2018). Retrieved from accessed August 14, 2018.
  5. Why Isn’t Asbestos Banned in the United States? Ben Leer, et al. Mesothelioma Center – Vital Services for Cancer Patients & Families. accessed August 14, 2018
  6. EPA says it’s strengthening asbestos regulation, not gutting it. Gregory Wallace and Sara Ganim et al, 2018. CNN. accessed August 14, 2018.
  7. E.P.A. Staff Objected to Agency’s New Rules on Asbestos Use, Internal Emails Show. Lisa Friedman, et al. accessed August 14, 2018
  8. Safety and Health Topics | Asbestos | Occupational Safety and Health Administration. accessed August 14, 2018.
  9. U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos | US EPA. accessed August 14, 2018.
  10. Federal Register Notice on Proposed SNUR for Asbestos | US EPA accessed August 14, 2018.
  11.  Problem Formulation of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos. EPA.  Page 22. accessed August 14, 2018.
  12. EPA Asbestos Emails.   accessed August 14, 2018.
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