With the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform passed into law, environmental activists are developing lists of chemicals they want banned in short order. Asbestos are near the top of the list, as easy targets. After all, it seems logical to get rid of such obvious carcinogens, but it isn’t that simple. In fact, some bans could actually undermine public health and safety.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban all asbestos back in 1991, but a federal court overruled the agency’s proposal. That failure became a driving force for passing TSCA “reform.” Activist groups maintained that if the EPA couldn’t ban such dangerous chemicals, the law must be too weak.

Asbestos were once widely used because they have heat insulating and flame retarding effects and were beneficial in a host of building materials—including roofing, siding, insulation, and tiles—as well as machinery, from cars to spacecraft. Yet, many types have been phased out because of serious health risks. And in 1991 the EPA proposed a rule designed to ban the rest.

When inhaled, asbestos can cause three serious health conditions: lung cancer, asbestosis (a breathing condition), or mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining. The most dangerous asbestos (amphibole asbestos, which are relatively long and thin and easily embed in human tissue) are rarely used in the United States. The overwhelming majority of asbestos used in the United States are chrysotile asbestos, which are shorter and thicker and lower risk because they embed less freely in human tissue.

All types of asbestos can cause cancer given regular and sufficient exposures. Occupational exposures to these chemicals, particularly decades ago when miners and others working with the chemicals did not wear sufficient protective equipment, caused a substantial number of health problems. The risk levels from shorter, lower exposures to consumers and others is not as clear. [For more details see the American Council on Science and Health’s (ACSH) excellent paper on asbestos risk and its shorter fact sheet].

While inhaling asbestos on a regular basis poses serious risks, the question remains as to whether we can gain benefits associated with these products while limiting exposure enough to keep risk low, such as by taking measures to protect workers. In 1991, the court basically said: Yes we can and in fact do. And it denied the EPA’s ban request because it promised to produce a net loss of human life.

The court pointed out that the EPA’s rule would remove asbestos from automobile brakes, which could increase brake failures and thereby increase highway fatalities. Moreover, the chrysotile asbestos the EPA wanted to ban were contained inside the brakes, which prevented human exposure. In addition, as ACSH’s paper details, the occupational risks were well managed and low for auto mechanics and other potentially exposed workers (see additional studies listed here).

The court was able to stop the EPA because the agency had violated TSCA’s requirement that the agency select the “least burdensome” regulations to achieve safety goals under the Act. The court explained that the proposed asbestos rule didn’t meet that standard.

One would think that’s a good thing. Yet, the EPA’s failure to ban all uses of asbestos served as a primary justification to pass TSCA reform. And guess what? The new law no longer requires the EPA to select the “least burdensome” regulatory option.

So now activist groups are calling for a ban on all types of asbestos uses—regardless of their benefits or whether risks can be managed. Without the requirement that the agency apply the “least burdensome” regulatory option, “green” activists may succeed in getting these and many other products banned.

Unfortunately, science and legitimate safety concerns take a back seat in such a politically charged debate. And the impacts will likely go beyond brake safety.

Chem.info reports that an asbestos ban may adversely affect chlorine producers. While activists seem to hate chlorine as much as asbestos, it is essential in controlling deadly pathogens in drinking water, hospitals, homes, and elsewhere. Clearly, there is plenty evidence that without adequate chlorination, more people would die.

What will become if those applications are compromised? Apparently, no one bothered to think too hard about that when they pushed through TSCA reform.