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EPA Expands Asbestos Ban to Most Uses : ‘Important Precedent’ Set in Effort to Curb Lung Cancer Threat

Times Staff Writer

The Environmental Protection Agency, in an extraordinary step aimed at a leading cause of lung cancer, Thursday ordered a nearly total ban on the use of asbestos in dozens of products throughout the United States over the next seven years.

The move presages the end of a checkered history for the controversial substance, which was once regarded as the “miracle mineral” for its strength and durability but has since gained infamy as a deadly but invisible poison responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

Decade of Restricted Use

The action comes 17 years after the government first identified asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant and more than a decade after it first began to restrict its use. Under the ban, the manufacture or importation of 94% of asbestos-containing products, including roof shingles, automobile brakes and concrete pipes, is to be outlawed in the United States by 1996.

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Only once before has the government voluntarily acted so comprehensively to banish a product from the consumer market, when EPA outlawed non-essential uses of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in spray cans a decade ago.

EPA chief William K. Reilly made clear on Thursday that he regarded the asbestos ban as a pollution-prevention tool the agency planned to use more frequently.

“This should mark a very important precedent for future action,” Reilly said.

The agency had in the past tended to set standards that permitted the use of such extremely hazardous substances, and environmentalists hailed the change in tactics on asbestos as a landmark step in protecting public health.

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“Finally, EPA is requiring people to switch to less dangerous materials,” said Karen Florini, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s the only approach that makes sense with persistent material like asbestos.”

The cost to consumers of switching to alternatives to the substance was estimated at $460 million over the next 13 years. Angry representatives of the asbestos industry, much of which is based in Canada, decried that cost as needless and insisted that modern asbestos products can be used safely.

Not Intended as Model

In an unusual attempt to mollify such opposition, the EPA went out of its way to emphasize that its action was not intended as a model for other countries. Only a few Scandinavian countries have already outlawed asbestos products, leaving manufacturers of asbestos products with a vast world market.

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While the scope of the ban within the United States is sweeping, it will leave undiminished much of the health risk that the substance now poses to the American population. Most of the asbestos now in existence was implanted in buildings and schools decades ago, mostly as insulation, and would be left unaffected by the new ban.

In addition, the cumulative effect of the carcinogenic dust can take years before erupting as deadly lung cancer, and so the incidence of asbestos-caused cancer is not expected significantly to change. While the EPA believes that asbestos causes 3,000 to 12,000 cancer deaths annually, agency officials estimated Thursday that the new ban would save just 200 lives over the next 13 years.

In acknowledgment of that fact, Reilly noted Thursday that asbestos had left a “terrible legacy of dead, dying and crippled” across the United States after nearly a century of commercial use.

“Our health and that of our children is still threatened,” he said.

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Issues Warning

Reilly and other federal officials, however, warned that homeowners should not attempt to remove asbestos on their own. To disturb shingles, pipe wrappings, sidings or automobile brakes could well cause an even greater health hazard than to leave them in place, they warned.

Instead, the EPA advised consumers to seek professional advice and assistance if asbestos-containing products must be replaced.

Asbestos, the generic name for a host of naturally occurring fibrous minerals, tends to break down into a dust of tiny fibers that remain suspended in the air for long periods of time and can be easily inhaled.

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The substance’s remarkable durability permits asbestos fibers to remain in the body for years, contributing to the long delays between exposure and the emergence of asbestos-related diseases. It is a leading cause of lung cancer, ranking only behind tobacco smoking and perhaps exposure to radon gas, and contributes also to other forms of cancer and lung disease.

Varied Responsibilities

Most inspections for asbestos are the responsibility of individual homeowners and corporations, although state and local governments have taken responsibility for inspection of public facilities.

In addition, a 1986 congressional order required primary and secondary schools across the country to inspect for asbestos and to take appropriate corrective action.

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As of last December, however, only half of the more than 30,000 schools found to contain hazardous levels of the substance had met a deadline requiring removal. While the government has the power to fine the violators, EPA chief Reilly said the agency regarded publicity about the hazards of asbestos as a more effective way to encourage compliance.

The full force of the new asbestos ban will not be felt in the United States until the last year of the seven year phase-in period, when 60% of the affected products will come under the EPA action. Only 10% of asbestos-containing products will be covered when the first stage of the ban begins in August, 1990.

Among the industries most severely affected by the overall ban will be American auto makers, who use asbestos in the majority of brake linings and brake pads and in a number of other automotive parts.

Representatives of the industry said they had been expecting the action and had already begun to include asbestos-free products in their fleets. Nevertheless, Thomas Carr, a senior official of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn., warned: “The consumer ultimately bears the cost.”

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When EPA banned non-essential uses of chlorofluorocarbons in spray cans, the chemical had been linked to depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer that protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. The agency imposed another blanket ban in 1980, when it outlawed polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly carcinogenic chemical used as an insulator, but that action was taken at the direction of Congress.

STEPS TAKEN TO CONTROL ASBESTOS

The Environmental Protection Agency’s road to Thursday’s ban on asbestos products:

1972--Asbestos classified as a hazardous air pollutant. 1978--Ban imposed on most fibrous, sprayed-on-asbestos. 1982--Schools required to identify and notify the agency of any fibrous asbestos. 1984--Public building surveyed to determine the extent of asbestos-containing materials. 1986--Phase-out and ban proposed for most asbestos products and uses of asbestos. 1989--ban imposed on almost all asbestos products, spanning three stages over seven years. The first stage eliminates roofing and flooring felt, pipeline wrap, and sheet by 1990.

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The second stage bans some gaskets and automobile friction products such as drum brake linings, disc brake pads, clutch facings, and automatic transmission components by 1993.

In the final stage, products banned by 1996 include roof coatings, commerical paper products, brake blocks, pipe and shingles.

Asbestos products not barred by the EPA Thursday:

Missile Liner, asbestos diaphragms, battery separators, arc chutes, acetylene cylinders, asbestos thread, asbestos reinforced plastic, sealant tape, electrical paper, asbestos packings and the use of asbestos in mining and milling.

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