Exposure to and prohibition of asbestos
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An estimated 300 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos were imported into the United States in 2020, nearly double the amount from 2019, according to the United States Geological Survey’s Mineral Commodity Summaries Report.
The chlor-alkali industry accounted for 100% of the imports, all from Brazil. This industry uses asbestos in the manufacture of semi-permeable membranes to make chlorine.
Asbestos import numbers were the second smallest in over 50 years and only a fraction of the all-time high of 803,000 tons reported in 1973.
A small but unknown amount of asbestos within manufactured products is also imported into the United States, but is not included in the report. This includes vehicle friction products, rubber plates for gaskets used to make titanium dioxide, and brake blocks for the petroleum industry.
Exposure to asbestos can lead to serious diseases, including mesothelioma, a rare cancer for which there is no definitive cure.
Although asbestos is highly regulated within the United States today, there is a growing spirit for more restrictions to be tightened and closer to a complete ban of the metal.
The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to tighten control of asbestos
The US Environmental Protection Agency released the first part of its final risk assessment for chrysotile asbestos in 2020, finding “unreasonable risks to human health” as manufactured products continue to enter the country and into the chlor-alkali industry.
The second part of the EPA’s final risk assessment is expected to be completed by mid-2021 and will cover the broad issue of asbestos, which poses the greatest threat to human health today.
The long-standing and recently amended Toxic Substances Control Act will require the Environmental Protection Agency to propose and finalize actions that address all risks by the end of 2022.
Legislative efforts continue to push in Congress to ban asbestos, although they have consistently failed for more than a decade. The latest effort was HR 1603, Alan Reinstein’s Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2020, which won bipartisan support less than a year ago. Political infighting among her supporters led to her demise.
The unbridled use of asbestos in the 1970s
Asbestos, a natural mineral that can harden anything it mixes with, was a highly sought-after ingredient due to its heat resistance and versatility.
Products made of asbestos were a staple in commercial and residential construction, which today poses the greatest danger from its previous unbridled use. As asbestos products age and are disturbed, they send toxic fibers into the air, which poses a significant risk if inhaled or ingested.
This risk led to the closure, or partial closure, of nearly a dozen old schools in Philadelphia in 2019. All were built prior to 1978 and were in various stages of renovation.
US import of asbestos ore
Asbestos consumption declined dramatically during the years following its peak in the 1970s, when imports ranged from 551,000 tons in 1979 to 803,000 tons in 1973.
Asbestos mining within the United States ended in 2002.
Recent US imports of asbestos
USGS National Minerals Information Centre
The 300 tons figure for 2020 may change significantly in the coming weeks based on the updated information. For example, an average of 172 tons in 2019, is reported as 100 tons. In 2018, the quantity originally reported was 750 tons, but later decreased to 681 tons.
The latest Geological Survey’s Mineral Commodity Summaries report estimated consumption of 450 tons for 2020 in the United States, based on a five-year rolling average of imports, allowing for potential use of stored asbestos from previous years.
Chloralkali industry remains a strong proponent of asbestos
The chlor-alkali industry has been the only domestic consumer of raw asbestos since 2016. According to the report, there are 11 chlor-alkali plants in the United States that still use asbestos. They make a third of the chlorine that is produced in the country.
The industry has been the most vocal critic of legislation that includes outright bans, but has supported stricter regulations that exclude their use. Most other industries have found alternative materials and stopped using asbestos.
The estimated use of asbestos worldwide has decreased, according to the report, from 2 million tons in 2010 to 1.2 million tons in recent years. Russia remains the largest producer with 790,000 tons per year.
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