“I wish today’s hearing wasn’t necessary – that this bill wasn’t necessary,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, at the recent House subcommittee hearing on a bill to ban asbestos. “But asbestos is still being imported into the United States, it is still being used in this country and it is still killing about 40,000 Americans every year.”
Pallone, like many in the asbestos prevention community, is tired of the delays and excuses that keep this dangerous, carcinogenic mineral in use on American soil. “We have known the dangers of asbestos for decades,” said Pallone. “Enough is enough.”
The focus of the hearing was the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019 (ARBAN), which was introduced in both the House (H.R. 1603) and the Senate (S. 717) earlier this year. It is the first hearing of its kind held by the House.
Isn’t Asbestos Already Banned in America?
Although more than 60 countries have banned asbestos worldwide, America still imports the lethal mineral by the ton. In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was on track to ban asbestos, but in 1991, lobbying efforts succeeded in having the ban struck down.
ARBAN would finally prohibit the importation, processing and distribution of asbestos, as well as its use in manufacturing. It also tasks the EPA with addressing the millions of tons of “legacy asbestos” that already exists in older buildings around the country.
This legislation is crucial. Consider the price of not having an asbestos ban. New research shows that asbestos has claimed more than 1,000,000 American lives since the EPA’s original ban was overturned.
Considering the staggering death toll, as well as the well-documented risks of mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and other horrendous illness linked with exposure, it seems like banning asbestos is an agreeable, bipartisan measure that could be passed tomorrow.
Unfortunately, not all interests are aligned when it comes to the public health, even though all sides claim that it is their top priority.
EPA Leadership Overrule Scientists on Asbestos Safety
The first testimony came from EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn. Dunn spoke about the new EPA final rule on asbestos, which was released in April. According to Dunn, the new rule takes appropriate steps to protect Americans from “unreasonable risks associated with asbestos.”
Not all agree with Dunn’s assessment of the new rule, however, including many at the EPA. Weeks after the new rule was announced, internal memos came to light that showed how EPA leaders ignored the guidance of its scientists and lawyers who supported a full ban on asbestos.
In Dunn’s view, the rule protects the public, even though it opens up new pathways for asbestos to enter the American market. As for legacy asbestos, the Dunn argued that the status quo is fine. From her perspective, the current regulations are protecting workers and the public well enough.
Representative Doris Matsui pressed Dunn about the information EPA has received from companies about their plans to switch to asbestos-free production processes. Dunn said she didn’t have that information in front of her, but would get back to the representative.
Hopefully Matsui will hold Dunn to her word, because the industry case for asbestos is pretty thin.
Safe Alternatives Exist — The Phantom ‘Need’ for Asbestos
The next 3 testimonies refuted Dunn’s fairly outrageous assertions about the lack of risks posed by current asbestos regulation. Linda Reinstein, widow of ARBAN’s namesake and head of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), described the EPA’s new rule as a “limited step which falls far short of meaningfully protecting public health.”
Reinstein also addressed the industry’s alleged need for asbestos, which has served as the justification for its continued use. She noted that 3 companies from the chlor-alkali industry account for nearly 100 percent of raw asbestos imports. It’s hard to buy into the economically disastrous implications of an asbestos ban that industry lobbyists are so quick to evoke.
Furthermore, these companies have asbestos-free options available to replace their outdated processes. Cost-effective alternatives exist, according to Reinstein, and greatly outweigh the needless public health risks associated with the continued importation of asbestos.
A ‘New Generation’ Is Getting Sick While the EPA Fiddles
Rebecca Reindel, a Senior Safety and Health Specialist with the AFL-CIO, spoke on behalf of the millions of Americans represented by the organization. Reindel strongly urged Congress to support ARBAN because current regulations have failed to protect Americans. She said:
“The CDC and other surveillance data show that a new generation of workers have significant levels of asbestos disease and death, notably workers 55 and younger, who would have entered the job market in the 1980s and later, after asbestos regulations were adopted.”
This evidence flies in the face of Dunn’s argument that local laws and regulations are sufficient in keeping people safe from asbestos exposure.
Celeste Monforton, who spoke on behalf of the American Public Health Association (APHA), had perhaps the strongest rebuke for the agency. After cataloging the ways in which the EPA has undercut its own attempts to regulate asbestos, she concluded:
“In short, we have simply lost confidence in EPA’s ability or desire to take comprehensive and effective action on asbestos. Rather than wait any longer, Congress should step in and get the job done.”
Monforton echoed the views of many of those present. Some Republicans showed signs of support for ARBAN, even though the bill was introduced by Democrats. Rep. David McKinley wondered aloud, “Why in God’s name do we still use this?”
Industry Arguments Tough to Swallow for Survivors and Families
The final testimony at the hearing came from Mike Walls, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the nation’s largest lobbying arm for the promotion and use of asbestos.
The ACC opposes ARBAN on the grounds that the EPA needs to complete its review of asbestos under the Lautenberg Act. Asbestos, Walls argued, is already slated for review, and Congress should not attempt to shortcut the agency. Furthermore, he believes that an assessment of asbestos use in the chlor-alkali industry will be deemed safe.
Rep. John Shimkus, a self-professed “pretty big fan” of the ACC, embodied the rationale underpinning the need for legislative restraint, “EPA cannot go into a chemical review with a predetermined outcome if it wants to avoid litigation.”
If hundreds of thousands of lives were not on the line, it wouldn’t matter that the EPA has chained itself to inaction on asbestos. When the review time is up, and the agency needs to make a determination, Wells may very well be correct when he says that the Trump EPA will rule that the chlor-alkali industry’s use of asbestos is safe.
The EPA will likely play a leading role in drafting and enforcing asbestos policy in the future. If its current, conflicted status prevents it from carrying out its duties appropriately, it leaves millions of Americans at risk of devastating asbestos-related diseases. This cannot be allowed to continue.
“It is clear that Congress must act,” said Pallone, “and so we will.”
Call your legislators today. Tell them that enough people have died. Tell them enough families have suffered. Tell them to ban asbestos now.