Lethal and Still Legal: Asbestos Flows into U.S. Ports

New National Campaign to Raise Awareness of Continuing Threats from Asbestos

March 10, 2015

Washington, D.C. – Many Americans believe asbestos was banned decades ago. But the deadly substance remains legal, with more than 8 million pounds entering U.S. ports since 2006, according to an analysis of federal trade data released today by the EWG Action Fund.

The analysis is the first in a series of investigations in the Action Fund’s new national campaign, Asbestos Nation. The campaign will raise awareness of the dangers asbestos continues to pose to public health, push for full transparency of the asbestos industry, including where the substance is used, and urge policymakers in Washington to take concrete steps to restrict the use of asbestos, including through imports.

“Federal health officials were blocked in their attempts to ban asbestos more than 25 years ago, and since then this notorious carcinogen has killed tens of thousands of Americans,” said Heather White of the EWG Action Fund. “Asbestos is still on the market and still dangerous at even the smallest exposures.”

“This campaign aims to build an overwhelming chorus of public support for full transparency from the asbestos industry and a ban of asbestos imports,” White said. “The Obama administration and Congress must take action to curb Americans’ exposure to asbestos.”

According to records obtained by the EWG Action Fund, from 2006 to 2014, at least 23 U.S. seaports received more than 8.2 million pounds of raw asbestos, as well as hundreds of shipments of hazardous asbestos waste and products made with asbestos.

The port records show that most raw asbestos imports – more than 7.6 million pounds – arrived at the ports of New Orleans and Houston, but more than 600,000 pounds came in through Newark, Long Beach, and four other ports. More than 100 shipments of asbestos products or hazardous asbestos waste entered the U.S. through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. From ports, shipments of asbestos went by rail or truck to industrial facilities, wholesalers and waste dumps in 29 states.

The port records are not readily accessible by the public. The EWG Action Fund obtained them through a paid subscription to a proprietary database. Many of the records were incomplete, with substantial omissions of vital information, including the amounts and whereabouts of asbestos brought into the U.S.

In its most recent annual minerals report, the U.S. Geological Survey says that last year, the U.S. used about 882,000 pounds of asbestos, an estimate based only on imports through the first half of the year. But port records show that about 964,000 pounds of raw asbestos were imported last year, leaving more than 82,000 pounds unaccounted for by the Geological Survey’s estimate.

In a related development, legislation introduced today by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) would set up a federal online database of information about products that contain asbestos and where those items are likely to be found.

The Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act would require all those who manufacture, import or handle the deadly substance to report annually to the Environmental Protection Agency about their “products and any publicly-accessible location in which the products have been known to be present in the past year,” according to Durbin’s office.

“Senator Durbin’s plan would give concerned citizens valuable information that they can use to avoid coming into contact with this lethal substance,” White said.

Asbestos-related diseases kill an estimated 10,000 Americans a year, including many who were not exposed on the job. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, an excruciatingly painful scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, an always-fatal cancer that can strike the lungs, heart, stomach or testicles.

In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a comprehensive ban of asbestos, including imports, under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. After a challenge by the asbestos industry, a federal appeals court dismissed the ban, saying that the EPA failed to show it was necessary to protect public health.

“The fact that the government could not ban a killer like asbestos under TSCA shows how weak the law is and how it has utterly failed to protect public health,” said White. “On behalf of those who have died from asbestos exposure and the families they’ve left behind, it’s high time that Congress and the President rewrite the law.”

This project is funded by the American Association for Justice (AAJ) to educate the public, conduct original research and advocate for strong policy reform to protect people from the ongoing dangers of asbestos exposure. 

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