The U.S. Asbestos Legacy: A Call to Arms
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States signalled its intention to protect American citizens from the deadly workplace hazard posed by asbestos. On July 12, 1989, the EPA issued the final ruling which banned the use of most asbestos-containing products. A fortnight later (July 26), the U.S. Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule (ABPR) was promulgated under section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act; it became effective on August 25, 1989. Had things proceeded as per the EPAs plan, prohibitions on the import, processing, manufacture and distribution of asbestos-containing products would have been implemented in three phases over the coming decade.
Unfortunately, for millions of Americans, things did not proceed as the Agency had envisioned. An aggressive assault by Canadian and U.S vested interests put paid to the phase-out; as a result of legal action mounted by asbestos stakeholders, the ABPR was vacated by a decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on October 18, 1991.1 Although the EPA wanted to contest this decision, the Justice Department refused to take further action. As a result of this shameful episode, a further 310,286 tonnes of asbestos have been imported into the U.S. in addition to an unknown amount of asbestos-containing building and automotive products.
Commenting on these developments, Dr. Gregory Deleuil, the Medical Advisor to the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, said:
In Australia we know about the catastrophic effects asbestos exposures can have on the human body. Asbestos-related disease is the worst occupational epidemic we have ever experienced. Had the EPAs plans been implemented the U.S. would have been at the forefront of the campaign to protect humanity from the asbestos hazard. The ban would have set a standard for countries all over the world which might have followed this example and also taken action. It is inexplicable and tragic that the use of asbestos is still legal in the U.S.
When President Barack Obama was a tender young community activist, he identified asbestos contamination in the Chicago projects where he worked. Local people supported his attempts to raise awareness of the health threat and persuade the local authorities to take action. Perhaps, during the last years of his tenure, the President might again revisit this issue. It is well past time that the U.S. came off the fence and declared unequivocally that asbestos use should be banned.
July 9, 2014
1 Kazan-Allen. October 18, 2011: A Bloody Anniversary. October 18, 2011.