Despite the irreparable and deadly harm asbestos is responsible for, it is not banned in the United States.
Mining for asbestos did not cease until 2002, and importation of asbestos continues. In 2015, an estimated 343 metric tons of asbestos were imported into the US. The majority of this asbestos, an estimated 95%, was imported for use in the chemical industry. Manufaturers use asbestos to create semipermeable membranes for the chloralkali process.
US asbestos consumption peaked in 1973 during which 803,000 metric tons of asbestos were consumed by the United States. That same year, the US produced 136,000 metric tons. At the time, this asbestos was used to produce a wide variety of products, but vinyl asbestos tile and sheet flooring and asbestos cement pipe were among the most common asbestos products being produced.
Versatile & Cheap
Asbestos was good at many things. It could add strength to cement–its tensile strength is greater than steel–yet its fibers could be woven into cloth, and made into fireproof gloves for handling hot equipment.
No single material could replace asbestos in all its applications. This versatility was complimented by how cost-effective asbestos was.
Part of the reason asbestos made so much financial sense versus potential substitutes were the conditions under which it was mined. Cheap labor and minimal or nonexistent safety considerations meant asbestos was inexpensive and garnered substantial profits.
Major asbestos companies like Johns-Manville not only used asbestos in their products, they also owned the mines. While asbestos mines were not their only source of income, they were particularly profitable. Johns-Manville, for instance, enjoyed profit margins in their mining division two or three times higher than the profit margins for their other divisions.
Had the health and safety of workers and the treatment of their medical issues been factored in, asbestos may not have been considered cheap, or even cost effective.
While a fraction of the amount that used to be imported is brought in to the US today, it is still a lot of material considering the risks of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases.
The longevity of asbestos on the market can be tied not just to its fire retardant, lightweight strength, or insulating properties, but also to the profits of asbestos mining companies, many of whom pushed the cheap and widely available mineral into products they also produced and sold.