At one time, asbestos could be found in buildings, products, and vehicles across the United States. It was used to make durable insulation, strengthen building materials like cement, package delicate materials for shipping, and more. By the mid-20th century, researchers had begun to gather persuasive evidence that asbestos was actually very dangerous, but the government did not take regulatory action until the 1970s.
When news of the link between asbestos and mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other dangerous health conditions began to spread, many governments reacted by banning the substance from their countries. While this option has been discussed in the US, and has many proponents, we do not have a complete ban to this day. There are, however, several pieces of federal legislation meant to protect US workers and consumers from the extremely serious health risks of asbestos.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
OSHA is a federal agency charged with the task of inspecting workplaces and enforcing safety regulations. In 1971, they responded to studies of asbestos’s danger by setting standards of maximum workplace exposure levels. Over the years these standards have been made increasingly strict, as more information about asbestos becomes available.
The current maximum exposure permitted is .2 fibers per cubic centimeter of air over an eight hour work shift. Employers are also required to provide adequate safety equipment and information. Sadly, asbestos exposure remains a workplace danger for an estimated 1.3 million employees in the United States alone.
The Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate potentially dangerous air pollutants. In 1973, it began to regulate the use of certain asbestos products. The Act has been amended several times to include new uses of asbestos that are currently banned. The following uses are currently banned under this law:
- Spray-on surfacing materials with more than 1% asbestos, unless they are protected with a bituminous or resinous binder during application and protected from being disturbed after they have dried
- Wet-applied asbestos pipe insulation
- Pre-formed asbestos block insulation for boilers or hot water tanks
Other uses of asbestos may still be legal, unless they are covered by other legislation.
The Toxic Substances Control Act
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gives the EPA the authority to regulate potentially hazardous chemicals. Like the Clean Air Act, it has been amended over time to reflect new information about materials such as asbestos. In 1986 the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response was added to the Act, requiring all schools to be inspected for asbestos insulation and other products. When found, asbestos in schools is required to be safely removed.
The Act was amended again in 1989 with the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. While this was originally an attempt to ban most asbestos products, that portion of the legislation was overturned in 1991. Instead, the Act currently bans any use of asbestos developed after 1989. The ban also applies to:
- Corrugated, commercial, and specialty paper
- Flooring felt
Many other uses of asbestos, including asbestos cement, brake pads, and engine parts, remain legal.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission
The CPSC regulates the safety of all products available to consumers in the United States. In the late 1970s, it banned certain uses of asbestos that may result in asbestos fibers being released into the environment, including wallboard patching compounds and fireplaces. There have also been voluntary recalls of several asbestos-containing products such as hair dryers.
Because current legislation allows for so many uses of asbestos, it is important to consult the CPSC or non-profit consumer safety organizations before using any product that may contain asbestos and for information about asbestos help resources.