Although even ancient Greeks and Romans noted the ill health effects that were associated with asbestos exposure, it was not until the 1970s that people began to call for an asbestos ban in the United States. One step the government took in protecting people from asbestos was the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA.
First, it is important to understand why it took such a long time to ban asbestos. Many people thought the ill health effects were outweighed by the beneficial characteristics of this material. Asbestos is a member of the silicate mineral family. As a silicate, asbestos has high insulating properties. Silicates are resistant to electricity, heat, flame, chemicals, as well as degradation. Additionally, asbestos itself is useful because it has both high tensile strength and flexibility, which makes it easy to add to other materials.
On the other hand, asbestos is now known as a human carcinogen. It was specifically linked to mesothelioma in the 1950s, and now we know that it can also cause lung, throat, esophageal, colorectal, gastrointestinal, and kidney cancer. Asbestos is not dangerous until it becomes waterborne or airborne, where you can ingest or inhale the mineral. From there, asbestos particles can become lodged in your body. Your body cannot break down asbestos fibers, so instead it may form nodules around them. These nodules can turn into cancerous tumors.
Thus, when people began to recognize these dangers, they started to call for a ban against asbestos. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed in 1986 as an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was originally passed in 1976 to regulate the use of chemicals. AHERA was added to TSCA as its second subchapter. AHERA itself was later amended in 1990.
The purpose of AHERA is to give the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, regulative control over asbestos. The original AHERA authorized the EPA to phase out asbestos in schools, as well as train and certify people who inspect for asbestos. In 1990, Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act, or ASHARA. ASHARA extended the umbrella of the EPA’s control by allowing it to require certified workers who came into contact with asbestos in public and private buildings as well.
Sadly, many people were exposed to asbestos before AHERA and ASHARA came into effect. Thus, because mesothelioma takes an average of twenty years to appear, many people may still be diagnosed with this deadly cancer.