The Environmental Protection Agency launched an effort yesterday to halt all uses of asbestos in the United States within 10 years, starting with a ban on asbestos-permeated cement pipes, fittings, floor and roofing material and heat-resistant clothing made of the cancer-causing substance.
"I believe there can be no debate about the health risks of asbestos," EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas said.
"This proposal starts us down the path that will eventually rid asbestos from our environment."
The proposal, being prepared at the agency for more than six years, signals the end for asbestos, which has been used widely for more than a century as an insulator and to strengthen construction materials.
The move also climaxes one of the most bitter regulatory battles of the Reagan administration. The decade-long phaseout outlined yesterday is virtually identical to an EPA proposal scuttled 18 months ago by administration regulatory overseers as unwarranted and overly expensive.
This time, Thomas said, the Office of Management and Budget not only cleared the proposal but also suggested that the agency add a labeling requirement for products that contain asbestos but are not subject to the immediate ban.
Asbestos has been conclusively linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the chest and abdominal lining, as well as a degenerative lung disease called asbestosis. The diseases may take 40 years to develop, and the EPA estimates that as many as 12,000 Americans each year fall victim to asbestos-related ailments from past exposure.
"As a result of what we are proposing, we estimate that over the next 15 years about 1,900 cancer deaths from asbestos will be avoided," Thomas said.
According to EPA estimates, banning asbestos will ultimately cost American consumers about $1.8 billion, most of that because of the higher costs of some asbestos substitutes. The ban will cost the industry about $210 million, but the agency said some of that could be recouped by converting manufacturing equipment to other uses.
The most immediate impact, however, is likely to be felt in Canada, which supplies more than 75 percent of the 260,000 tons of asbestos used in this country annually. According to industry officials, domestic production is limited to two mines in California and one in Vermont, which together produce less than 15 percent of asbestos supplies.
EPA officials said they expect the proposal to become final in about a year, after the required comment period and public hearings.
The ban on certain construction materials and asbestos clothing would then take effect immediately, reducing the amount of asbestos used in this country by about one-half.
The rest would be eliminated by reducing importation of asbestos and manufacture of asbestos products by about 10 percent a year. The EPA said the gradual withdrawal is necessary to allow time to develop substitutes for asbestos in some products, such as automotive brake and clutch linings.
The Asbestos Information Association, an industry group, attacked the proposal, contending that the agency is reacting to past abuses and that asbestos can be used safely.
"We feel that EPA's proposal is totally unwarranted and it is inconsistent with the international consensus which favors controlled use of asbestos," association president Bob Pigg said. Should the proposal become final without change, he added, legal action to block it "is an option."
The proposal drew praise from environmentalists and some members of Congress, including Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee last year called the administration's regulatory delays an "unlawful abuse of power."
"At long last, EPA's proposed regulations will be debated in public rather than in secret meetings with officials of the Office of Management and Budget," Dingell said.
Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), another frequent critic of the administration's regulatory policies, said the EPA "should be applauded for its long-awaited action on asbestos."
The fire-resistant properties of asbestos were known to the ancient Greeks, but it was the mineral's insulating abilities that made it pervasive in modern society. Between 1900 and 1980, more than 30 million tons of asbestos were used in the United States, much of it to swathe hot water pipes, ducts and boilers.
Hundreds of thousands of tons went into vinyl floor tiles, siding and roofing shingles and thousands more into patching compounds, gaskets and heat shields. By some estimates, 75 percent of houses more than 50 years old and heated with steam or hot water contain asbestos in some form.
According to industry officials, asbestos use reached a peak of 750,000 tons a year in the mid-1970s, when the substance was being used as a spray-on insulation.
The balloon collapsed shortly after that, when soaring cancer rates among asbestos workers and shipbuilders who worked with the material during World War II documented beyond doubt that asbestos could be as deadly as it was useful.