Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) is proposing a significant new use rule (SNUR) for asbestos.
The rule would require manufacturers to receive EPA approval before importing
or manufacturing asbestos for the following 15 products: adhesives, sealants,
and roof and non-roof coatings; arc chutes; beater-add gaskets; extruded
sealant tape and other tape; filler for acetylene cylinders; high-grade
electrical paper; millboard; missile liner; pipeline wrap; reinforced
plastics; roofing felt; separators in fuel cells and batteries; vinyl-asbestos
floor tile; and any other building material (other than cement). Those
subject to the SNUR would be required to notify the EPA at least 90 days
before commencing any manufacturing or processing of asbestos for a significant
new use. Once notified, the EPA will evaluate the use and restrict or
ban the product, if necessary.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral and known carcinogen, was commonly
used in insulation and fireproofing materials. High exposure to asbestos
has been linked to lung cancer, lung scarring, and tumors in the linings
of internal organs (e.g., mesothelioma). Asbestos fibers affecting human
health are tiny particles that get in and stick to the lungs forever.
In 1975, the EPA began banning asbestos, and by 1989, the agency issued
a final rule for the near-total ban of the mineral under the authority
of the TSCA. In 1991, however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated
the EPA’s rule, allowing for the import and manufacture of asbestos-containing products.
Since the EPA began regulating asbestos, many sellers and manufacturers
of asbestos-containing products voluntarily phased out such products and
replaced them with non-asbestos-containing products. However, nothing
prevents the return of these products on the market.
Today, asbestos is still found in brake liners, potting soil, chlorine
factories, firefighters’ clothing, flame retardant, wall insulation,
liner for cement pipes, and even crayons and school supplies. The continued,
pervasive use of asbestos has led many in the health community to suggest
that all persons have asbestos fibers in their lungs from various exposures,
including subway stations, brakes from cars, and from the historical use
of asbestos to insulate pipes in our grade schools.
However, the U.S. no longer mines or manufactures asbestos. In 2016, Brazil
supplied 95% of all asbestos used in America, while the rest originated
in Russia. Those numbers will drastically change going forward, given
that Brazil banned the manufacture and sale of asbestos last December.
Russia is now poised to become the most significant exporter of asbestos
to the United States. Russian manufacturers see an opportunity to expand
their markets with Trump as president, given his past support for asbestos,
with one company going as far as stamping an image of his face on their
The official EPA position is that it is toughening oversight and claims
the new rule will create a disincentive for manufacturers and distributors
who want to bring these products to market because they cannot immediately
do so. Given that there is no regulatory process preventing asbestos-containing
products from being the market, SNUR would force companies intending to
import or manufacture the 15 identified products to notify the EPA and
face an evaluation of its risks. The EPA is confident it has covered all
possible uses in only identifying 15 products.
However, some within the EPA are worried it will actually make it easier
for asbestos to come back into more widespread use. EPA staffers are worried
about the new rule and argue that there are many uses of asbestos beyond
the 15 identified, leaving the potential for other uses that would avoid
Even if SNUR is adopted, it is not clear whether it will spark the return
of asbestos to its former prominence. While asbestos remains legal, it
has fallen out of use for most of its former applications due years of
litigation and billions paid to those exposed.