U.S. asbestos imports condemned by health experts, activists

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More than 50 countries have banned asbestos, a toxic mineral used in building materials, insulation, automobile brakes and other products.

The United States isn’t one of them. Last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 1,060 metric tons — more than 2.3 million pounds — came into the country, all of it from Brazil. “Based on current trends,” the USGS says, “U.S. asbestos consumption is likely to remain near the 1,000-ton level …”

Public health experts and anti-asbestos activists find this distressing.

Linda Reinstein, who lost her husband to mesothelioma, an especially virulent form of cancer tied to asbestos exposure, said she’s “appalled and disgusted that the United States still allows the importation of asbestos to meet so-called manufacturing needs.

“We’ve known for decades that safer substitutes exist,” said Reinstein, president of the California-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “We’re facing a public health crisis where more than 30 Americans die every day from preventable, asbestos-caused diseases.”

To mark National Asbestos Awareness Week, Reinstein plans to hold a press conference in Washington today to highlight U.S. investment firms she says hold stakes in Brazilian asbestos mining and production. “It’s time we protect public health over the profits of these companies,” she said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people worldwide die of asbestos-related diseases each year. A Center for Public Integrity investigation, done in tandem with the BBC in 2010, revealed that the global asbestos industry, with help from scientists and lobbyists, continues to aggressively market its wares in developing nations, putting millions at risk of disease. Russia remains the world’s biggest asbestos producer, followed by China and Brazil.

Asbestos use in the United States has plummeted from its peak of 803,000 metric tons in 1973. Still, attempts at a ban have failed. The Environmental Protection Agency tried in 1989 but was thwarted by an industry court challenge.

The USGS says the chlor-alkali industry — a segment of the chemical industry that makes chlorine and a caustic soda called sodium hydroxide – accounted for about 57 percent of domestic asbestos consumption in 2012. Forty-one percent of the imported asbestos went into roofing products and the rest into “unknown applications.”

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, said, "The chlor-alkali production processes that involve the use of asbestos are strictly regulated" by the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Diaphragms made of asbestos are a critical separation medium in the chlorine manufacturing process," the council said. "Chlorine is essential for manufacturing life-saving medicines, producing solar cells, and providing safe drinking water."

Chlorine producers "work to manage the risks and potential adverse effects to human health and the environment," the trade group said. "Workers potentially exposed to asbestos are protected by wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and following strict work processes. Employees in the chlor-alkali industry are given annual medical examinations to determine whether an employee has incurred any adverse effects due to any possible exposure.”

Nonetheless, authorities such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the International Labor Organization warn that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Richard Lemen, an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and a retired assistant U.S. surgeon general, said that until the U.S. bans asbestos, “Americans are still at risk of developing highly preventable asbestos-related disease.”