Canada is finally banning asbestos, but its decision only throws the situation on the other side of the border into sharper relief. Brook Spencer of the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance looks at the current state of international regulation.
In December 2016, the Canadian government finally took its first steps toward banning asbestos, announcing that the country would no longer allow asbestos to be used in new manufacturing, while products containing asbestos, such as brake pads, would no longer be imported into the country by 2018. The exports of asbestos to other countries would also be halted. The move was hailed by Canadian unions and environmental groups, but was also critiqued for not happening soon enough.
Canada’s decision also put a new spotlight on the United States, leaving many across the globe to wonder why the US has not come forward with its own asbestos ban, despite knowing the dangers associated with exposure.
To date, nearly 60 countries worldwide have taken the initiative to ban the use of asbestos because of its adverse effect on human health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos while working, and it estimates that there are 107,000 asbestos-related deaths a year. Although asbestos is considered safe when it’s left alone, fibres may become airborne if the product becomes damaged and friable.
Global organizations such as the WHO and the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) are calling for increased scrutiny on asbestos and a worldwide ban. ICOH issued a strong statement: “There is no exposure level below which asbestos-related disease risk can be totally eliminated. A global ban represents the best form of primary prevention.” Health and safety organisations around the world have echoed similar messages, including in the United States, where there has been hesitation about an outright ban – that’s despite nearly 3000 people receiving being diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, making it the most common occupational cancer in the US.
Is the US dragging its feet?
In the US, the use of asbestos dropped off in the 1970s when federal laws were passed to curb its use after it was definitively proved to be carcinogenic. Today, newly-manufactured products in the US are allowed to contain up to 1% of asbestos under rules set out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Safety Control Act (TSCA), which banned some uses of the material in products such as commercial paper and flooring felt, and heavily regulated its use in other manufactured products, such as brake pads and clutches (friction materials). The EPA’s golden opportunity to fully ban asbestos came in 1989 when it issued a final rule through Section 6 of the TSCA. However, the rule was later struck out by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The US remained quiet on asbestos until recently, when the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was passed by Congress in June 2016. This amendment to the TSCA gives more power to the EPA to regulate chemicals and enforce standards to encourage the use of safer alternatives. Under the new guidelines, the EPA is able to initiate evaluations of ten chemicals, including asbestos, to better understand the risks they pose to the environment and human health. The reviews must be completed within three years and if the chemicals are shown to pose an unreasonable risk to people, a mitigation plan must be in place within two years.
Fighting the trend: Russia and India’s asbestos trade
Canada’s promise to ban asbestos by 2018 joins bans from countries such as New Zealand and Iraq to bolster the WHO’s push for an outright global ban on asbestos use, several countries continue to mine, export and import the mineral. Chief among them is Russia, which produced 55 % of global asbestos exports in 2015, with Brazil, India, Kazakhstan and China combining to export more than 44% of the remainder. Russia’s support for asbestos is highlighted by JSC Uralasbest, which touts itself as the largest producer of chrysotile asbestos in the world. The company produces around 450,000 tons of chrysotile asbestos each year and exports more than 75% of it. In addition, rapidly developing countries like India, which imported nearly half of the asbestos produced in 2015, continue to serve as the main destinations for the product. India, in particular, cites a lack of peer-reviewed studies as part of the reason for its continued use of asbestos in auto parts and other products.
As the number of countries using asbestos continues to decline, pressure is expected to increase on the US to make the final push and legislate to discontinue its use. Worldwide organisations, including the WHO, IOSH and the International Labour Organization, have all issued statements calling for a global ban. The EPA’s evaluation of asbestos is the next step toward an outright ban in the US. With continued pressure from influential worldwide health leaders, an end to the mining and continued use of asbestos might finally be in sight.
Brook Spencer is a community outreach director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance in the US, who spends much of her time advocating for an eventual asbestos ban in the country.