Federal environmental regulators indicate the use of chrysotile asbestos presents an unreasonable risk to consumers, workers, and bystanders, according to a risk evaluation released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which could lead to the end of the use of the toxic substance in automobile brakes and gaskets.
In a Final Risk Evaluation for Asbestos posted in the Federal Register on January 4, the EPA looked at asbestos use in the chlor-alkali industry, sheet gaskets and other types of gaskets and automotive brakes.
The evaluation has been long anticipated, and many raised questions as to whether the agency would back its scientific reviewers, who warned chrysotile asbestos was too much of a risk to be used in a draft risk evaluation published in late March 2020.
The risks of asbestos exposure, which can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, have been known for about a century, although they did not get widely publicized until 1964. Most modern, first-world countries banned asbestos use in its entirety decades ago. But not the United States.
While most uses were banned in this country, there is still about 750 metric tons of asbestos used in the U.S. every year. The EPA was given a chance to ban asbestos again in 2016, as part of a new chemical safety law meant to require safety reviews of key chemicals, but refused.
The EPA again refused to put an outright ban on asbestos in place in April 2019, as part of a significant new use rule. That decision came amid public comments by doctors, health experts and consumers who supported a ban. However, the findings published in this final risk assessment suggest the EPA may be prepared to take more stringent action restricting or banning asbestos use.
While the agency indicates most of the products which traditionally contained chrysotile asbestos are no longer in circulation, it is still used in some products which could threaten the health of consumers, bystanders and workers.
“EPA found unreasonable risks to consumers and bystanders from all consumer uses of chrysotile asbestos,” according to a summary of the findings published by the agency. “Consumer products still available and for which EPA found unreasonable risk include aftermarket automotive brakes/linings and certain gaskets. Risks to consumers can come from the inhalation of chrysotile asbestos.”
In addition, the EPA noted that workers were put in danger by commercial chrysotile asbestos use in chlor-alkali diaphragms, sheet gaskets, brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products and other gaskets. The EPA also notes the unreasonable risk even extends to workers nearby, but not in direct contact, with these products due to inhalation.
Asbestos Use In the U.S.
Currently, asbestos is banned for use in corrugated paper, roll board, commercial paper, and specialty paper, flooring felt and new commercial uses that begin after August 25, 1989. However, even though the fibrous material is toxic even in small amounts, it is still in use in some industries. It is frequently used in automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tiles and roofing materials.
The EPA’s next step will be to propose and take public comments on what actions it should take to address these risks. The agency is required to finalize its actions within two years. The agency indicates those actions could include requirements, limitations or prohibitions of the use, processing, manufacturing and import of chrysotile asbestos.
Instructions on how to submit public comment on the issue are detailed in the Federal Register notice.