After years of cajoling from the U.S. Senate and pleading from health activists, the Office of the Surgeon General finally warned the public of the dangers of asbestos.
It wasn’t literature. Just 341 words explaining the most basic facts about asbestos — where it’s found, how it kills — and urging “every American to become aware of the public health issues of asbestos exposure and the steps they can take to protect their health.”
But did anyone notice?
I checked Google and media search sites and found only one reference to the statement, and that was on the surgeon general’s own Web site.
The most strident voice in the chorus to issue the warning was the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Linda Reinstein,, the group’s Executive Director and Co-Founder said it has taken more than six years to get a surgeon general to embrace asbestos awareness.
Reinstein, whose husband died from an asbestos-caused illness, told me this morning that the warning “is a landmark step to preventing exposure and deaths.”
No one, including, I suspect, Dr. Galson, believed that Americans would read it and rush to see their physicians.
But because tens of thousands of new cases of asbestos-related diseases are being diagnosed every year, any help in informing the public of the potential hazard from the lethal fibers was coveted.
Over the years, letters requesting the warnings were signed by some of the top asbestos-treatment specialists in the country and leading patient advocacy groups.
But the responses during the Bush administrations were always the same – a form letter listing the more important things that the surgeon general was worrying about, such as obesity.
The reality was that the Bush White House – actually Dick Cheney himself – did his best to stifle any and all government discussion of asbestos or its risks.
For two years, at the repeated request of industry lobbyists, Bush’s team pulled every trick it could to ram asbestos tort reform through Congress.
The plan the White House pushed to limit asbestos lawsuits and put government panels in charge of determining who was or wasn’t sick, didn’t pass.
The new surgeon general to be – Regina Benjamin – was named to the job in July and is awaiting confirmation.
I’ve checked the few public comments that the Alabama family physician has made since being appointed and can’t find anything on asbestos yet.
Even though former top doc Everett Koop didn’t always see it that way, the surgeon general is a largely ceremonial post traditionally used by most administrations to communicate health messages to the public. But the office holder can sometimes make his or her role more meaningful, and America’s nominated top doctor isn’t shy.
But a few lives might be saved if she weighed in now and then on asbestos dangers. It is especially important because it looks like the chances of a meaningful asbestos ban ever getting passed by the gang on the Hill is way so remote.
Here is a link to the surgeon general’s statement.
Link to statement