Will asbestos follow chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef into British ports if the UK secures a post-Brexit trade deal with the US? Thousands of innocent men and women, including dockworkers, have continued to suffer from asbestosis diseases – in particular, mesothelioma, the incurable cancer of the lung linings – decades after the first import ban was introduced in the mid-1980s.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) say that every day in England and Wales, 6 people lose their lives to mesothelioma as a result of historical exposure to asbestos. Latest HSE figures reveal that annual mesothelioma mortality has risen to more than 2,540 (“Occupational Lung Disease in Great Britain 2017”, Nov 2017)

Less than twenty years after all asbestos imports were finally stopped from entering the UK, are we about to see the return of the deadly fibres to countless hundreds of products in a grim echo of Britain’s industrial past?

US products that fall below EU standards

It may not be widely known that asbestos containing materials were never actually prohibited in the US, and still could be used in a variety of products by up to 1 per cent including, roof sheeting, tiles, cement, brake linings, gaskets and other friction materials. The International Trade Committee has raised concern over bringing in US products that fall below EU standards, and which could create complications in trading with Europe. It is feared that President Trump will not be dissuaded from taking a hard line in implementing a US-first “protectionist policy.”

Currently, asbestos is banned in 55 nations around the world, and restrictions on its use imposed by an additional 16 countries. While the use of asbestos is banned in all 28 countries of the European Union, notably, the potential deadly mineral remains legal in both the U.S. and Canada.

From the mid-1970s onwards in the UK, growing asbestos awareness to the severe and increasingly fatal outcome for thousands of men as a result of exposure to the fibre particles had started to see a decline in asbestos imports. During the 1960s peak period of asbestos use, an average of 170,000 tons was imported every year, which reduced to around 100,000 by the end of the 1970s. By the mid-1980s ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibre types, imports had dropped further to around 35,000 tons per year. For the next 15 years, until a final ban was imposed in 1999, around 8,000 tons of white asbestos continued to be imported.

Failure to permanently stop all asbestos use

However, the US took a slightly different path over dealing with its asbestos imports during this same period. In the 1970s, the US created government agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aimed at limiting exposures to asbestos and other toxic pollutants.

Then in 1973, the EPA introduced The Clean Air Act, which banned most spray-applied asbestos products from being used for fireproofing and insulation. In 1989, the EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule, with the aim of imposing a full ban on the manufacturing, importation, processing and sale of asbestos-containing products.

However, in a landmark legal case in 1991, a challenge from the asbestos industry saw the EPA ban overturned by the court verdict, which ultimately signalled a failure to permanently stop all asbestos use. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a complete ban on asbestos was possible but the EPA would be required to adopt the “least burdensome” means to achieve its goal.

Those who opposed to the ban argued that asbestos regulation was “a far less burdensome option than a partial or complete ban”. Consequently, the EPA plan to reduce workplace asbestos risk “at any cost” was rejected by Congress although six types of asbestos-containing products did remain banned, including wall and ceiling millboard, flooring felt and corrugated paper.

Harmful asbestos-containing products continued to be manufactured

A number of potentially harmful asbestos-containing products continued to be manufactured in the US, including various building materials, vehicle gaskets and brake pads, and even asbestos clothing such as aprons, gloves and welder’s blankets. Previous estimates suggest that the biggest use of asbestos includes roofing products and most worryingly, the production of chlorine and lye. Lye is sodium hydroxide, used to cure many types of food, making soap, and other types of household cleaning agents. Lower grades unsuitable for use in food preparation are commonly used as oven cleaners and for unblocking drains.

In response to Britain’s ongoing intentions to negotiate a significant US trade deal, the British Lung Foundation, has said that everything should be done to limit UK exposure to “this toxic substance.” Many asbestos victim support groups, asbestosis lawyers and the thousands of sufferers of asbestos-related conditions will, of course, be in complete agreement. At the same time we should all remain alert and be increasingly concerned over the possibility that the banned deadly mineral would once again be allowed to be used in Britain.