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A Sweeping Step

July 09, 1989

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken an important and sweeping step to eliminate the threat to public health posed by asbestos. The EPA's ban on virtually all remaining uses of the mineral, popular among manufacturers because of its heat resistance, shows that at last the agency is willing to use its broad authority to get rid of toxic substances. The move cannot save the thousands of people already exposed to asbestos particles and thus at risk of lung, chest and stomach cancers, but it clearly will save lives in years to come.

The ban also marks a clear break with the foot-dragging of the Reagan Administration, whose budget office had held up the proposal for years. EPA Administrator William K. Reilly spoke with a directness that has not been heard from that agency in some time when he stated: "This is pollution prevention. We're eliminating a known cancer-causing substance from the marketplace. Virtually all asbestos-containing products will be replaced with safer alternatives."

Under the EPA order, asbestos cannot be used in clothing, floor tile, felt for construction or concrete sheet after August, 1990, although those products can still be distributed for two years after that. Auto-makers must replace asbestos in brakes starting with 1994 models. And asbestos can not be used in coatings, paper products, replacement brakes and cement pipe and shingles after 1996.

Asbestos miners were the first to show the effects of working around this product, which breaks easily into tiny flakes that remain lodged in the lungs. During World War II, many shipyard workers were exposed to asbestos used in the increased military construction. Today, exposure is a special risk to workers demolishing old buildings in which asbestos was used for insulation as well as to custodial workers and people hired to remove asbestos from schools and structures.

Asbestos has turned from a popular product that seemingly reduced danger from heat and friction to a potentially deadly agent in the workplace. Because diseases related to asbestos usually do not develop until 20 or more years after the constant exposure, some manufacturers successfully dodged for long periods any responsibility for the harm their product caused. Some of these manufacturers clearly knew of the dangers inherent in asbestos for many years before they told their workers. Once the dangers became known, use of asbestos dropped dramatically from 560,000 metric tons in 1979 to today's 85,000 metric tons. This decision by the Environmental Protection Agency starts at last to close an unfortunate chapter in American public health.

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