When Was Asbestos Banned in the U.S.?

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, appears as resistant to American legislation as it is to fire, electricity, and heat,” an author recently wrote in an article for Harvard University. That’s because, after nearly 100 years of study into its toxicity, asbestos has never been totally banned in the U.S.

The toxin appears in natural mineral deposits (like talc and vermiculite). Moreover, it’s added to thousands of other everyday products and building materials (like insulation). Internationally, workers in asbestos-handling careers face the greatest risk of asbestos cancer.

While only about 3,000 people die of mesothelioma each year, studies show asbestos kills up to 15,000 people in the U.S annually through disease and disability.

Instead of a complete asbestos ban, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to restrict certain uses. For instance, in 1973, the regulatory agency banned spray-on surfacing asbestos (for fireproofing and insulation). However, not all spray-on applications were removed from the market and preexisting uses were allowed to remain in place. Consequently, many construction workers and home renovators risked toxic exposure from asbestos in popcorn ceilings and other textured paints for years.

1989 Partial Asbestos Ban

Prior to the 1989 partial ban on asbestos, federal agencies tried several times to limit use of the hazardous material. In 1975, the EPA prohibited using asbestos pipe and block insulation in some plumbing systems (like boilers) – if the insulation was friable or crumbled easily.

Asbestos Regulatory Timeline

  • 1976: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a ban to prevent workplace exposure to asbestos.
  • 1977: EPA bans asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and certain drywall patching compounds.
  • 1978: Due to airborne exposure risk determined by the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), more applications of spray-on asbestos are banned.
  • 1989: The Partial Ban outlaws most asbestos-containing materials (ACM) as well as new uses of the mineral beginning after August 25, 1989.
  • 1991: The New Orleans Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns most of the 1989 ban. As a result, only 5 uses of asbestos (corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, and flooring felt) are prohibited from being manufactured, imported, processed, and distributed.

April 2019 Final Rule

If new uses of asbestos were outlawed in 1989, why was the April 2019 Final Rule passed?

Unfortunately, previous regulations didn’t totally ban asbestos-containing products. Some ACMs could return to the marketplace without EPA evaluation for their effect on human health. The April 2019 Final Rule introduced safety roadblocks for ACMs and previously banned products.

However, even today, asbestos isn’t totally banned in the U.S. In addition to the 5 previous banned applications, more than a dozen other uses were prohibited. Meanwhile, the EPA continues to investigate current uses of chrysotile asbestos for workplace exposure risks.

Which Uses of Asbestos Are Banned?

The 5 specific ACMs banned in 1989 include:

  1. Commercial paper
  2. Corrugated paper
  3. Flooring felt
  4. Rollboard
  5. Specialty paper

The other ACMs banned by the 2019 Final Rule include:

  1. Adhesives, sealants, roof, and non-roof coatings
  2. Arc chutes
  3. Beater-add gaskets
  4. Cement products
  5. Extruded sealant tape and other tapes
  6. Filler for acetylene cylinders
  7. Friction materials
  8. High-grade electrical paper
  9. Millboard
  10. Missile liner
  11. Packings
  12. Pipeline wrap
  13. Reinforced plastics
  14. Roofing felt
  15. Separators in fuel cells and batteries
  16. Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
  17. Woven products
  18. Other building products not listed above

If Asbestos Isn’t Banned, Am I Still at Risk?

Anyone who handles or works near loose asbestos dust is at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Typically, miners, shipyard workers, and military servicemembers experience the greatest lifetime risk of asbestos cancers from toxic exposure. Additionally, families are at risk of exposure from take-home asbestos (fibers, sometimes too small to see, carried home on the clothes and skin of workers). Likewise, asbestos contamination in homes built before the 1980s could be dangerous if disturbed or deteriorating.

Asbestos doesn’t have an odor. Moreover, unless labeled, you can’t tell something is an ACM just by looking at it. Sampling and testing by a lab is the only way to determine if your home and family are at risk.