Asbestos has been in the news recently, along with the health concerns surrounding it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. has proposed a framework that opens the door to new uses of asbestos. With many other countries already banning all types of asbestos, what are the risks, and is there cause for concern?
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the collective name for a group of fibrous silicate minerals. The fibres these minerals form fall into two main groups: serpentine and amphibole. Serpentine fibres are curly and flexible, while amphibole fibres are stiff and straight.
Chrysotile asbestos, known as ‘white asbestos’, is a type of serpentine fibre. It’s the most commonly used type of asbestos today, accounting for over 90% of current world production. Crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) are much less commonly used amphibole fibres.
What is asbestos used for?
Asbestos is resistant to heat and doesn’t burn. It’s also a good insulator, and is strong while being soft and flexible. Due to these properties, it was commonly used for roofing and insulation. Other uses were in cement pipes, car brake pads, and tiles.
Bans on asbestos came into force after numerous scientific studies showed that it could cause cancer in those exposed to it. In particular, lung cancer and mesothelioma can be caused by exposure to asbestos.
The fibrous nature of asbestos is the root of its health effects. The very fine fibres, some thinner than 1 micrometre in diameter, can be breathed in. Some of them can then remain in the lungs. There, they can cause inflammation and scarring, leading to a condition known as asbestosis. Ultimately, this can increase the risk of developing some cancers.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) are clear that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic. The WHO has called for all countries to ban its use in all forms.
What are the impacts of asbestos use?
It’s estimated that asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma cause 107,000 deaths per year worldwide. Further estimates suggest 4% of all lung cancers are caused by asbestos. People exposed to asbestos in the workplace are more likely to develop asbestosis or cancer.
It took so long for the effects of asbestos to become apparent as it can take a long time after exposure for symptoms to develop. In some cases, it can be over 40 years before asbestos-related cancers develop and are diagnosed.
Where is asbestos banned, and why isn’t it banned in the U.S.?
Asbestos is banned in over 55 countries worldwide. In most cases, these are total bans on all types of asbestos and all uses. However, in some countries, partial bans permit some uses. More concerningly, nine of the ten most populous countries in the world do not have total bans on the use of asbestos. This includes China, Russia, and the United States.
In 1989, the EPA tried to introduce a full ban on the manufacture, import, processing and sale of asbestos-containing products. However, asbestos manufacturers successfully challenged the regulation, and it scaled back to only cover some uses. Though compensation for asbestos-related diseases has limited the uses of asbestos, some uses are still permissible in the United States.
Why is the EPA now allowing new uses of asbestos?
The EPA hasn’t lifted existing bans but has proposed a ‘significant new use rule’ (SNUR) for asbestos. This would allow them to evaluate and potentially approve new uses of asbestos. They claim that this will allow them to protect against new unsafe uses. More controversially, the EPA has proposed that they will not evaluate the health risks of ‘legacy uses’ of asbestos, which may exclude some asbestos-like fibres from risk assessments.
Asbestos manufacturers claim that modern asbestos products don’t pose the same hazards as older ones. However, scientific evidence does not appear to support this. The World Health Organisation is clear that it considers all types of asbestos to be cancer-causing, and continues to support an outright ban.