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Warning tape that reads "Danger Asbestos"

Asbestos removal in progress. (Photo by BuildPix/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

Asbestos Has Been a Problem for Decades — Will This Congress Do Something?

Linda ReinsteinLiz Hitchcock

For decades we have known there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos, a carcinogen, causes fatal illnesses including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovaries. Each year, more than 40,000 Americans die from entirely preventable asbestos-caused diseases.

Asbestos was once used in many industries and was pervasive in our homes, schools, and workplaces. The first cases of asbestos-related illnesses were recorded in 1924 in the British Medical Journal. As a result, the British government enacted Asbestos Industry Regulations on dust to protect factory workers in 1931.

Nearly 70 other countries around the world have banned asbestos, but the United States is not one of them. In only the first six months of 2022, the U.S. has already imported more asbestos than all of last year. Meanwhile, recent mortality reports indicate asbestos-related deaths are again on the rise.

While imports of asbestos pose a threat, especially to the communities near ports and factories that use it, all Americans are at risk of exposure from “legacy” asbestos — the asbestos we used for decades before seeking safer options. From children playing near sites where old asbestos has been dumped to families that make home repairs without knowing their walls are filled with a deadly material—it is everywhere, silently lurking and deadly.

Especially worrisome is the risk to our brave first responders and firefighters, who put their lives on the line every day to s and extinguish fires in millions of homes and buildings across the U.S. that still contain asbestos. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of firefighters found the population of firefighters “had a rate of mesothelioma two times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole.”

The risk of asbestos exposure is not spread equally among Americans. BIPOC communities and low income communities are more likely to still use older buildings that contain asbestos; including homes, schools, and workplaces. Without proper renovations and repairs, they are at risk for increased exposure and cancer.

It was 33 years ago this month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban asbestos in the United States. But the regulation was overturned with only a handful of asbestos-containing products ultimately removed from circulation. Since then more than 500,000 tons of asbestos have been imported and put to use. 

Since then, more than one million Americans have died from asbestos-caused disease.

Following lawsuits initiated by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, and our co-plaintiffs, the Biden Administration has been forced to make asbestos a priority. However, because the previous administration selected only one of six types of asbestos — chrysotile asbestos — for review, the work the agency is doing will only address part of the problem.

Due to these dangerous gaps and limitations, the proposal is not a full asbestos ban and American lives remain unnecessarily at risk.

In 2022 there are only eight plants, owned and operated by just three companies that continue to rely on asbestos. These companies know asbestos technology is antiquated and have already found other options that are less risky, but they continue to rely on asbestos and profit from its use.

In May, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Suzanne Bonamici introduced the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act (ARBAN) of 2022. This bill would ban all imports and use of asbestos and provide life-saving education about the dangers of exposure.

The legislation has been years in the making. Working with Senator Merkley, ADAO, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and other stakeholders have made sure that this is the most comprehensive asbestos bill before Congress. Following its 2022 introduction, ADAO testified in support of the bill during a Senate hearing with other stakeholders,demonstrating that  ARBAN is the best and the only way to truly ban this toxin.

We should have banned asbestos decades ago, when we realized it was killing our citizens. After years of dangerous and ineffectively regulated imports, use, and unnecessary exposure, it’s time to finally make it happen. EPA and Congress must ban asbestos once and for all.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Linda Reinstein

Linda Reinstein is the president and chief executive of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which seeks to eliminate asbestos-caused diseases and through prevention and policy.
Liz Hitchcock

Liz Hitchcock

Liz Hitchcock is the director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal advocacy program of Toxic-Free Future.

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