For almost two decades, skirmishes, bare-knuckle brawls and knock-down battles have been fought to prevent Americans from being exposed to the lethal effects of asbestos. But the latest congressional assault launched yesterday may finally breech the lobbyist-protected walls surrounding the asbestos industry.
Do you remember the comic character Charlie Brown racing to kick a football that Lucy always holds and jerks away at the last moment?
That’s pretty much what it has been like when it comes to government attempts to pass a life-saving law which would ban the mining, production, importation, use and sale of asbestos.
Monuments to the dangers of asbestos can be seen in graveyards near the taconite mines in Minnesota, Michigan’s auto plants, Boeing’s aircraft factories in Washington, talc mines in New York, the vermiculite mine at Libby, Mont., and near shipyards coast to coast. Millions more are being treated for ivarious asbestos-caused diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
More than 40 countries, including all members of the European Union, have banned asbestos So why has it been so hard to ban the killing fiber in the U.S.?
In 1989, the EPA instituted a ban. Months later, the Canadian asbestos industry hauled it into court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it on technical reasons.
Last October, after six years of meetings, scores of hearings, arm-twisting, deal-making � all vital to Washington politics at its most skillful level – Sen. Patty Murray got the entire U.S. Senate to pass a ban on asbestos.
At first, the public health community cheered. But a careful reading of the final language made it clear that the ban really wasn’t all that was expected or needed.
But it didn’t go far enough. Trying to keep Republican support and appease the automotive, sand, gravel and mining interests, somewhere between the final air-tight version that Murray fought for and the wording that the Senate finally voted upon, there were unexpected loopholes that torpedoed almost all of Murray’s enormous effort.
Responding to the outcry from both civilian and government public health advocates. the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said it would try to plug the holes and issue its own ban.
Many of the same experts that worked so hard for Murray responded to the call from the House. Those opposing the ban also quickly mobilized.
The White House Office of Management and Budget tried and failed to keep the EPA from supporting a ban of “any products in which asbestos is intentionally added, used or knowingly present as a contaminant.”
The bill – H.R. 6903 – is sponsored by Texas Democrat Gene Green, the chairman of the subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, who said that every year nearly 10,000 people in the United States die from asbestos-related diseases’ and the ban is needed “to protect the health of all Americans from this deadly toxic material.”
Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of Safety and Health, said: “This legislation would finally stop the future use of asbestos in this country and prevent future unnecessary exposures and deaths from this toxic killer.”
Other House committees will have to weigh in to add money for research on asbestos-related disease. There are many significant improvements in Green’s legislation.
One of the most crucial is a limit on how much asbestos can exist in any product that is mined, imported, processed, used or sold. Industry had convinced the Senate that any products or material with below 1 percent asbestos content was “safe.”
Far from it, said the public health community. Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen and there is absolutely no known “safe” level of exposure.
The House bill sets a limit of zero percent asbestos, none, in products and much safer limit of 0.001 percent for five minerals often contaminated with asbestos fibers. They would be calcium carbonate, olivine, talc, vermiculite, and wollastonite.
Also, the law would ban the asbestos-contaminated waste from taconite iron mining which companies to sell for road and runway surfacing.
And now, years after government health investigators showed that asbestos-tainted talc was killing many of the workers who mined it and the consumers who used it, it too will be illegal.
I asked EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission what this legislation � if passed � will mean to the millions of home and business owners who have Zonolite vermiculite insulation in their attics and walls. Based on tests by both the government and its manufacturer, W.R. Grace, Zonolite can have and release large amounts of asbestos fibers if even slightly disturbed.
I haven’t gotten an answer yet.
Of course, the legislation has several hurdles to jump before becoming law.
One is time. Congress is about to recess again some members can go home to campaign.
The other is Committee Chairman John Dingell.
Skeptics opined that the Michigan democrat was so beholding to his state’s automotive industry � the targets of tens of thousands of personal injury lawsuits from asbestos in brakes and gaskets – that he’d never let allow a meaningful ban to be introduced.
People on his staff said that their had been several discussions with auto industry reps, but that “Dingell was standing firm” in his support of the need for a ban.
That may be the case, but I couldn’t help noticing that committee chairman had nothing to say about Green’s ban bill.
Lots of people who treat victims of asbestos disease and others who have lost loved ones, want this public health no-brainer to become law.
“The public relies on congress to protect it from known dangerous substances. This ban must be passed into law so we can finally eradicate the deadly diseases caused from asbestos exposure that plagues so many families,” said Linda Reinstein, co-founder and executive director of the victim’s advocacy group Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Reinstein lost her husband to mesothelioma.