Are U.S. Manufacturers Bringing Asbestos Back?

February 27th, 2012

Well it finally happened!  We got our first snow of the season and like clockwork the masses rushed to the grocery to stock up on milk, bread, and other assorted necessities.  Did the same phenomenon occur in 2011 with United States manufacturers who use cancer causing asbestos in their products?  Between 2010 and 2011 asbestos imports have risen 26% over 2009 levels with Canada accounting for approximately 90% of the imports.

Right now you’re probably thinking, “they don’t use asbestos anymore”. But in reality asbestos is still being used.  In fact its use may be increasing.  Scientists and historians have estimated that over 3,000 products may have contained asbestos.  In addition to industrial, maritime, building, and automotive products, the list includes consumer items such as household appliances and handheld hair dryers.

Although the peak years for asbestos use in the United States were the 1960s and early 1970s, when many of these asbestos–containing products were popular, a recent resurgence of its use has happened mainly in the production of asphalt roofing shingles.

The United States Geological Survey recently issued the Mineral Commodity Summaries 2012.  According to their documentation asbestos imports into the United States had been on the decline for over a decade until 2010.

In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency took its best shot at banning asbestos use in almost all products with the publication of what is commonly known as the “Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule”.  However, following a lawsuit filed by U.S. asbestos manufactures with the backing of the Canadian Government and the Province of Quebec, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the rule in 1991.  The EPA was forced to reduce the ban to only certain product categories and “new uses” as described in an EPA clarification document.

In late 2011 Canada’s last asbestos mine closed (at least for the moment).  Although the mines are still selling small amounts from their limited inventories, the availability of asbestos on the world market is diminished sufficiently to cause concern by the mine's clients.  According to Jeffery Mine president Bernard Coulombe, "our clients are a little unhappy with us because they say, 'We don't have any more comparable-standard fibre right now ... we are in the hands of the Russians." Does this explain the increase in imported asbestos in 2010 and 2011?  Did United States manufacturers make a run on asbestos in anticipation of the mine closures?  Only time will tell.