Banning the use of a substance that kills hundreds of thousands of people across the world every year should be a no-brainer. Indeed, more than 60 countries have recognized the massive public health upheaval of asbestos exposure. That figure, however, excludes the U.S., which racks up 12,000 to 15,000 asbestos-related deaths annually – though real momentum toward a ban could soon be underway.
On November 2, 2017, 8 democrat senators introduced the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now (ARBAN) Act of 2017, a proposal to ban all current and future uses of asbestos and to “protect human health.”
The sixth legislative attempt to ban asbestos in the last 2 decades, this bill could expedite the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s regulation of asbestos considerably. But all previous bills failed to garner enough support. Is this effort likely to go through?
The Latest Congressional Bill to Ban Asbestos
Asbestos regulations have stirred debate for decades since studies began to declare asbestos a carcinogen, but none has completely banned the substance. The Clean Air Act of 1970, Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 have only placed partial restrictions on asbestos use. Even the EPA tried to ban asbestos in the 1980s, only to be overturned.
Today, the U.S. continues to import asbestos to use in the manufacturing of hundreds of consumer and construction products. The chlor-alkali industry, responsible for 100 percent of U.S. asbestos consumption, has strong influence over how asbestos is regulated. Until a total ban is in place, say anti-asbestos advocates, millions of people are at continued risk of deadly exposure.
“Delays in banning asbestos mean as many as 15,000 Americans die each year,” says Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), 1 of ARBAN’s co-sponsors. “[Asbestos] is still used in a wide variety of construction materials that the public unwittingly comes in contact with every day.”
Feinstein, the bill’s sponsor Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and other co-sponsors named the legislation after Alan Reinstein, the late husband of ADAO founder and president Linda Reinstein. In 2006, he died age 66 of mesothelioma, a lethal cancer caused exclusively by asbestos that still affects 3,200 new patients every year. To prevent any further diagnoses and deaths, ADAO urges, the timing of the bill is critical.
What Would the Bill Achieve?
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2017 describes itself as “a bill to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to eliminate human exposure to asbestos, and for other purposes.”
If passed, the proposed amendments to the TSCA could:
- Require the EPA to identify and assess all known uses of (and exposures to) asbestos.
- Prohibit the manufacturing, processing, use, and distribution of commercial asbestos, other than described in the EPA’s rule, within a year.
- Impose restrictions on the use of asbestos to eliminate human and environmental exposure within 18 months.
A statement released by Merkley’s office added:
“It’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the developed world and ban this dangerous public health threat once and for all. It’s outrageous that in the year 2017, asbestos is still allowed in the United States.”
Proposed TSCA Changes Eclipsed by EPA’s ‘Final Framework’
Unfortunately, the Trump-influenced EPA already has different plans for the TSCA, giving this legislation a few hurdles to overcome before enactment.
It must first go through various committees in the Republican-controlled Senate before moving to the House of Representatives and the President – who made a litany of pro-industry tweaks to the EPA last year, including appointing lobbyists as key decision makers.
Led by Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA last summer issued its “final framework” for a promising TSCA rewrite signed into law by Obama in 2016. The new law was designed to mandate the EPA to review the use of 10 dangerous chemicals including asbestos. Under the final framework, the EPA loosely interpreted this to mean only current and future uses of these chemicals, excluding those that are banned or discontinued and still pose a threat.
The EPA has known about asbestos-related health risks for years, and experts repeatedly name existing, deteriorating asbestos products the most prevalent source of exposure. Pruitt recently responded by announcing vague plans to reconsider them in the EPA’s review, but this would only be another unbearably lukewarm move to solve an urgent problem.
“Asbestos is a killer. The evidence is clear,” said Dr. Raja Flores, a mesothelioma specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who supports ARBAN. “This is a life-saving bill. It can save more lives than I can with my knife.”
ADAO Hopes Bill Will ‘Save Dollars and Lives’
While ARBAN faces federal pushback, other countries have advanced further toward stricter regulation. Brazil implemented a full ban in November 2017. This month, Canada made good on its promise to fully prohibit asbestos use, sale, import, and export.
“We watch with relief as we see the Canadian ban about to go into effect next year, and we are extremely hopeful that we can soon follow in our neighbor’s footsteps,” said Linda Reinstein in a press release. “Asbestos imports are on the rise as the chemical industry continues shamefully to seek a way to profit from a known carcinogen.”
The U.S. remains 1 of few industrialized nations to continue use of asbestos despite opposition from countless mesothelioma patients, doctors, researchers, advocacy organizations, and Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Time and again, the chemical industry has won out. Recent changes to EPA control have left us on even rockier ground and added confusion to a straightforward fact: that a ban is our only hope of saving more needlessly lost lives.
“There is no excuse that asbestos is still legal in the United States, even though we know how unsafe it is,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another co-sponsor of Merkley’s bill. “Breathing clean air shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s a right.”