US Government Role in Asbestos Regulation, Remediation, and Management

While asbestos may not be illegal in the United States, it is heavily regulated by the U.S. government. Different government agencies have their own rules and regulations for asbestos control to maintain exposure levels in the workplace and the environment.  Those who work directly with asbestos consistently have a higher chance of contracting a fatal disease than those who do not.  The following is a list of government agencies and the role each of them play in asbestos regulation:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

OSHA is an organization that protects and assures laborers they are working in safe and healthy working environments. Since the carcinogenic asbestos fibers are small and nearly impossible to see, they are a health hazard, and OSHA has regulations to protect workers from asbestos.

These regulations are set in the three industries where workers are regularly exposed to asbestos: the construction industry, the general industry, and shipyards.

Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)
The maximum amount of asbestos exposure that is allowed.  According to OSHA, 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air over an eight-hour time period, or 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter of over a 30-minute period.
All work places covered by OSHA standards must be examined for asbestos .If asbestos does exist, then it must be determined if the asbestos fibers pose a threat when disturbed (will the work generate airborne fibers?).
Monitoring asbestos exposure limits within each industry to determine if the workplace complies with PEL is required.
Warning Signs and Labels
Caution labels must be placed on all areas that contain asbestos fibers: raw materials, scrap, waste, debris, etc.
Decontamination and Lunch Areas
Decontamination and lunch areas are designated as separate areas where workers must practice proper hygiene if he/she was exposed to asbestos that was higher than the PEL.
Protective Gear
Employers must provide adequate protective gear if their employee will be exposed to asbestos that is above the PEL. This includes respiratory devices, full body clothing, goggles,   and face shields.
Annual training must be provided to the employees who are exposed to higher PEL
Medical Surveillance
 While medical surveillance requirements vary between the construction industry, the general industry and shipyards, employers are required by OSHA to implement a medical surveillance program for any worker who might be at risk of being exposed to asbestos levels above the PEL.
Record keeping
Employers are now required to document asbestos exposure monitoring for a minimum of 30 years. Medical surveillance for the employee must be kept on file for the duration of employment, plus 30 years after. Training records must be kept on file for at least one year after employment.

For more in-depth coverage regarding OSHA regulations on asbestos, refer to the OSHA fact sheet

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to protect the environment and the health of humans by regulating substances that could potentially be harmful to both.  Asbestos is a carcinogen that was used in many places:  our schools, our homes, the buildings we work in and the products we buy. While asbestos is illegal to mine in the United States, it is not illegal to import and asbestos is still used in products and manufacturing today. However, asbestos is heavily regulated. Government organizations like the EPA have regulated asbestos to determine the acceptable level of asbestos to which humans can be exposed, how to remove asbestos from a facility safely, and what you are required to do by law if you discover asbestos. The following outlines rules and regulations according to the EPA:

Asbestos-Related Laws

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
This law requires schools and other educational platforms to inspect buildings for asbestos -containing material. If asbestos is found, the law then requires officials to produce an asbestos management plan and reduce asbestos levels within the affected buildings.
Asbestos Information Act (Public Law – 100-577)
Companies who make any sort of asbestos-containing product must report that production to the EPA.
Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act – (ASHARA)
Approximately 25 years ago, it was estimated that the amount of asbestos that contaminated schools would affect close to 15 million children. The EPA also estimated that it would cost educational services $3 billion for clean-up and removal because schools must comply with the aforementioned AHERA.  It became apparent that without any sort of assistance, school districts and educational facilities would suffer as they would not be able to financially support the response to asbestos found in schools.  The ASHARA was implemented in 1990 as a provision to the AHERA that requires the EPA to assist, direct and enable institutions to be able to follow the correct protocol.
Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan (MAP)
Issued under the AHERA, MAP provides guidelines on training requirements and accrediting asbestos professionals. There are eight components to MAP that when used together, provide a plan for the states and EPA training providers. These components are: initial training, examinations, refresher training, qualifications, decertification requirements, reciprocity, definitions and record keeping requirements. Asbestos inspections and response actions in buildings, schools, and other public areas are required to be done by an accredited asbestos professional that has been properly trained. Training and accreditation is not specific to just one job or one person. Under the MAP, workers, contractors/supervisors, inspectors, management planners  and project designers must all be trained.
The Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
These two pieces of legislation serve to make sure that our air and water is clean and safe for consumption and use. Local government and individual states are responsible for abiding by current laws and regulations regarding any activity where asbestos may be involved. Under the CAA is the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which has effectively banned asbestos containing spray that was used for fireproofing, insulating and decorating. Thermal system insulation or wet insulations that are commonly used for boilers, pipes, and hot water tanks are also banded under NESHAP. Additionally, the EPA is allowed to intervene whenever necessary.
The SDWA determines the amount of “allowable” contaminants in drinking water. With asbestos being used in cement pipes that distribute water, it became apparent that drinking water could be contaminated. Under the SDWA, the maximum contaminant level for asbestos is 7 million fibers per liter (MFL). If asbestos levels ever rose to 7 MFL or higher, water suppliers would be required to notify customers within 30 days.
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
CERCLA, also known as Superfund, is a government-funded program that cleans up with hazardous waste sites that are abandoned in the United States. Hazardous wastes sites are ranked using the Hazard Ranking System to determine if the site is eligible for clean-up. Typically, asbestos removal is regulated by NESHAP and actions are taken based upon the health risk from the contaminated site itself and if the area is currently being used or may be used soon.

EPA Asbestos Regulations

EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule
This rule applies to people who are state and local government employees but are not covered by OSHA’s asbestos regulations.  Worker protection requirements are extended through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the EPA is required to protect those who may be exposed to asbestos in states that do not have an OSHA approved occupational safety and health plan.
Asbestos Ban and Phase out Rule (Remanded)
Most asbestos containing products were banned in the United States in 1989, but in 1991 that regulation was over-turned due to a loophole in the TSCA. Today, asbestos is still legal and a few asbestos-containing products are still banned. However, in June 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was passed. This new act will provide new legislation allowing the EPA more control over toxic chemicals – regardless of the impact on industry profits.
Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP)
Asbestos fibers are small, light, needle-like and can move around easily in the air. The asbestos fibers that become airborne during building renovations and demolitions are hazardous so NESHAP regulations have been implemented to control asbestos exposure. Before a demolition or renovation, the building’s operator/owner must notify the appropriate state agency with a letter of intent that includes the amount of asbestos that is currently there and  the state will determine if the amount of asbestos is too high. Specific procedures are then followed to control asbestos emissions caused by any activity that would break, dislodge or disturb the asbestos. Asbestos-containing waste must also be handled under specific removal guidelines.  Operations also must follow specific procedures with removing asbestos-containing waste.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
This purpose of this government agency is to regulate consumer products that could potentially be harmful to the public by making sure that the products do not contain any unnecessary risks that would result in injury or death. Even though asbestos is a known carcinogen, products in the United States are still allowed to contain some level of asbestos, as long as the fibers are not in danger of becoming airborne.
§1304 of the Consumer Product Safety Commission
declares that any patching compounds that contain intentionally-added free- form asbestos that can become airborne are banned. This applies to patching used to cover and seal holes, cracks, joints found in the walls, trim and ceilings of buildings. The patching that is sanded down and distributed for personal use, sales or for consumption is also banned. Artificial ashes and embers for gas fire places that contained asbestos are banned under the CPSC.
However, asbestos is still present in many buildings, homes and products because of its widespread use until the 1970s. The following products could still contain asbestos today:

  • Roofing/siding shingles
  • Homes built between 1930 and 1950
  • Paint and patching compounds
  • Artificial ashes/embers used for gas-lit fire places
  • Stove top pads
  • Walls/floors surrounding wood burning stoves
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Hot water steam pipes
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets
Although the majority of products produced today do not contain asbestos, some still do. Those products are required to be labeled as such.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

The CDC is an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a section under the CDC. The purpose of NIOSH is to research and recommend different tactics that prevent work-place injury and illness. In the case of asbestos, NIOSH conducts research by looking at the relationship between those who were exposed to asbestos and if the person has contracted an asbestos related illness. These studies also cover home contamination; protecting workers and their families and different methods used for asbestos containment (such as the Glove Bag method). Workers, employers and study participants are notified by the NIOSH about their findings and past research related to the exposures through a program called the NIOSH Worker Notification Program. The Manual of Analytical Methods (NMAM) was also developed by NIOSH to analyze and sample the contaminants in the workplace or workers’ blood/urine.

The results of these types of studies have helped confirm that asbestos fibers cause cancer and asbestosis in humans. NIOSH developed an exposure limit that reduces exposure to the “lowest feasible concentration.” The Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) is 100,000 fibers per cubic meter of air if the asbestos fibers are greater than 5 micrometers in length. This is tested by a 400-liter air sample taken over 100 minutes.

The following guidelines are recommended by NIOSH when it comes to limiting asbestos exposure

  • Do not handle or disturb loose vermiculite
  • Areas that contain asbestos should be isolated to avoid spreading the fibers
  • Do not used compressed air for cleaning
  • Use wetting methods/agents to reduce asbestos exposure when possible
  • Avoid dry methods such as sweeping or shoveling
  • Clothing worn must be protective and disposable. Do not wash work place clothes with other family clothing
  • Respiratory protection is required
  • Debris and waste contaminated with asbestos must be disposed of in accordance with OSHA and EPA standards

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)

Under the United States Department of Labor is an agency known as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). MSHA works in conjunction with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 to establish and enforce mine safety and health standards. The purpose of these standards is to eliminate and reduce the frequency of fatal and non-fatal accidents, health hazards and to promote safer working conditions.

In 2008, the MSHA set the same PELs as OSHA, which is  0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air over an eight-hour time period, or 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter of over a 30-minute period.  To determine if asbestos fibers exceed the PEL, MSHA uses phase-contrast microscopy (PCM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

PCM is a contrast-enhancing optical technique where high-contrast images of transparent specimens are produced. Airborne asbestos fibers are collected using a sampling pump and filter. The filter is then removed, placed on the microscope and then made transparent, displaying the asbestos fibers. PCM is the primary method used by MSHA to analyze air samples because it is relatively quick and cost effective; however, this method can be inaccurate because it is not fiber specific.  TEM uses a beam of electrons that passes through and interacts with a specimen. Magnifications of the fibers are so great, that not only can TEM show asbestos and non-asbestos fibers, but it can also differentiate between the types of asbestos. However, receiving results from a TEM analysis takes much longer than if PCM was administered.

US Department of Housing and Urban Development

Established in 1965, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is part of the Cabinet department in the US government. Its mission is to provide and create strong communities and affordable homes, while strengthening the housing market.

When inspecting a building for use, an environmental report must be provided to the HUD that identifies any environmental issues with the property. The HUD in turn is then responsible for determining that there are not illegal environmental factors or elements that could potentially be a safety or health hazard.

Under the HUD, asbestos must be addressed in the environmental report and by the sponsor’s architect if the building or structure was built before 1978. This means that on any building constructed before 1978, a qualified asbestos inspector must survey an entire building, locating and identifying the conditions of asbestos found. If asbestos is found then the HUD enacts a combination of asbestos abatement and the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Program, which is an operation focusing on proper training, cleaning, work practices and surveillance to maintain and control asbestos and asbestos containing materials in buildings that are in good condition.

If the asbestos found  is not damaged, then the HUD recommends the asbestos be encapsulated. Under the HUD, the cost of asbestos removal can be included in the mortgage.  Finally, all asbestos removal products have to be done in accordance with EPA and OSHA regulations.

  • OSHA
    • U.S. Department of Labor “OSHA©Fact Sheet – Asbestos”(January 2014). [Link]
    • EPA,
    • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Laws and Regulations” (October 14, 2015). [Link]
    • U.S . Environmental Protection Agency, “What are the EPA’s drinking water regulations for asbestos.” [Link]
    • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos at Superfund Sites,” (April 19, 2016). [Link]
  • CDC
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Asbestos,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (March 7, 2016). [Link]
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Appendix C- Supplementary Exposure Limits,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (October 9, 2013). [Link]
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “NIOSH Recommendations for Limiting Potential Exposures of Workers to Asbestos Associated with Vermiculite from Libby, Montana,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (June 6, 2014). [Link]
  • CPSC
    • Michael Knes, “Consumer Product Safety Commission,” Reference for Business. [Link]
    • United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Asbestos In The Home.” [Link]
    • Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Part 1304 – Ban of Consumer Patching Compounds Containing Respirable Free-Form Asbestos.” [Link]
  • MSHA
    • Federal Register, “30 CFR Parts 56, 57, and 71 Asbestos Exposure Limit Final Rule,” Part IV Department of Labor, Mine and Safety Health Administration (February 29, 2008). [Link]
    • Douglas B. Murphy, Ron Oldfield, Stanley Schwartz, Michel W. Davidson, “ Introduction to Phase Contrast Microscopy,” Microscopy U The Source for Microscopy Education, (2016). [Link]
    • Seattle Asbestos Test, LLC, “Asbestos 101,” (2006) [Link]
  • HUD
    • U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Mission.” [Link]