Asbestos, a mineral with well known fire resistant qualities, has been in use for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks are known to have put it to a variety of uses including lamp wicks. The link between asbestos inhalation or exposure, lung disease and poor health dates back almost as far, beginning with anecdotal evidence from Greek and Roman times and culminating with definitive empirical and statistical data by the 1960’s.
Regulating Asbestos Risks
In spite of the evidence linking asbestos poisoning to serious health issues, legal regulation of asbestos safety and efforts to control human exposure to it did not begin in the United States until 1971 when it was declared to be a toxic substance by a newly formed federal regulatory body, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Another layer of federal government regulation was added when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed in 1971 to standardize workplace health and safety conditions including setting working exposure limits for a wide variety of airborne hazardous materials including asbestos fibers.
OSHA Regulations for Asbestos
As the evidence linking asbestos testing to a wider array of serious diseases and health impacts grew, the level of permissible exposure was repeatedly reset by OSHA at lower and lower concentrations. While OSHA was imposing limits of exposure, in 1973 the EPA began issuing restrictions on permissible uses of asbestos in building construction materials.
States and Consumer Laws and Regulations
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from fraudulent, unsafe, hazardous or otherwise harmful products. As public concern over the dangers of asbestos cancer exposure grew, the CPSC joined the regulatory attack on asbestos in 1976 by banning its use in certain home appliance and residential building product applications. Because federal regulatory jurisdiction in the area of workplace safety and environmental protection is not exclusive, many states began to impose their own regulatory schemes on various industries, like the construction industry, whose use of asbestos containing products presented serious public safety concerns.
Federal Asbestos Laws
In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and gave enforcement authority to the EPA. The EPA promptly began to use TSCA as its principal regulatory tool and enforcement weapon in the control of asbestos. OSHA continued to revise and refine asbestos exposure rules including levels of permissible exposure for different categories of workers and by turning its focus to reducing exposure to friable asbestos. ‘Friable’ means easily crumbled or reduced to a powder. Regulations emerged requiring manufacturers to encapsulate or “fix” asbestos in building and construction products since the mineral fibers are only dangerous if they are airborne and can be inhaled and lodge in the respiratory system.
In 1989 the EPA finally adopted the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. This rule was designed to be implemented in phases over a period of years and applied to over ninety percent of all asbestos-containing products. But it was overturned in 1991 as being unjustifiably burdensome.
Asbestos Laws Today
Asbestos continues to be important in the manufacture of many products. However, as a result of effective regulation virtually all of these products encapsulate asbestos in ways that reduce or eliminate its propensity to release airborne fibers.
Despite the continued existence of asbestos-containing products, workplace exposure to asbestos fibers has been effectively reduced in the United States as a result of the evolution of statutory controls and regulatory oversight. But health issues remain for a sizeable population that was exposed prior to the implementation of these controls. Diseases caused by asbestos exposure continue to be a significant health issue in the US today. For more information on current asbestos regulation or assistance with understanding risks and health issues related to asbestos exposure, contact the CPSC, your state Attorney General or a qualified attorney.