Asbestos Policy (8-20-07)
Libby, Montana, home of the now defunct W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite
mine, has brought a renewed interest in the health dangers of asbestos.
A series of Seattle
Post-Intelligencer articles beginning in November 1999 about
the Libby vermiculite mine and the nearly 200 asbestos-related deaths
there over the last 40 years prompted a public outcry, two federal
investigations into government agencies' failure to warn Libby residents
and workers, declaration of a Superfund site, and a renewed interested
in banning asbestos products. Asbestos is classified as a Group A
carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
due to health risks associated with inhalation, including lung cancer,
mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Despite bipartisan efforts, little progress
was made in the 109th Congress on the issue of asbestos. While the
new leadership of the 110th Congress may prove to be more successful,
the few legislative efforts in 2007 have stalled thus far.
On June 12, 2007 the Senate Environment and Public Works
Committee met to expound on the health effects of asbestos exposure
and proper mitigation measures to limit exposure. The committee invited
members of the academic community, asbestos health advocacy groups,
and environmental organizations. In addition to discussion about general
asbestos health consequences, the Senators and panelists also discussed
the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007 (S.
742), which was introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). The
bill would amend the Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 by "prohibiting
persons from importing, manufacturing, processing, or distributing
in commerce asbestos-containing products." Although the bill
has twenty co-sponsors, mostly Democrats, the bill has yet to advance
to a vote. However, on August 2, 2007, the proposed bill was placed
on the Senate calendar for discussion, which may indicate momentum
for moving the measure forward. (8/20/07)
According to the EPA
Asbestos Home Page: "Asbestos is a problem because, as a
toxic substance and a known carcinogen, it can cause several serious
diseases in humans. Symptoms of these diseases typically develop over
a period of years following asbestos exposure." The web site
provides information about where asbestos
is commonly found, and other commonly
asked questions. Asbestos is classified as a Group A carcinogen
by the EPA due to health risks associated with inhalation. Primary
health concerns include lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the thin
membranes lining the abdominal cavity and surrounding internal organs),
and asbestosis (a specific form of lung disease).
The EPA issued a rule prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and
importation of most asbestos products in 1989 due to the related health
problems; however, a 1991 ruling by the US Fifth Circuit Court of
Appeals, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American and Canadian
asbestos industries, essentially negated the rule. The lawsuit argued
that the EPA had not thoroughly studied alternatives to an asbestos
ban. In the 107th Congress, the Senate Committee on Health, Education,
Labor, and Pensions (HELP)
held a hearing to look into asbestos issues, with the possible goal
of beginning to form regulations for the production and use of the
In a 1999 Supreme Court ruling
that revoked a $1.5 billion class action settlement, the justices
ruled that the settlement had compromised the rights of the victims
and that it was up to Congress to develop legislation to help move
the numerous asbestos lawsuits through the court system at a faster
pace. A 2002 report released by Sebago
Associates, which was commissioned by the American
Insurance Association, estimated the cost of asbestos claims resulted
in more than 60 companies filing for bankruptcy. Momentum has been
building in the past few years on Capitol Hill to pass legislation
regarding asbestos-related claims.
In Libby, Montana, home to the W.R. Grace and Co.'s closed vermiculite
mine, nearly 200 people have died over the last 40 years, and more
than 375 additional people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related
fatal diseases. A byproduct of the vermiculite mining was the release
of tremolite, a form of asbestos, into the air. In addition, there
is concern that vermiculite ore shipped from Libby across the country
may have contaminated other plants as well.
After years of debating who had the authority to address the environmental
and medical problems of Libby, and whether the statute of limitations
on a criminal investigation had expired, the EPA finally insisted
on May 26, 1999, that the site must be cleaned up. Less than a week
later the EPA announced that it had known about the asbestos situation
in Libby since the mid-1980's and found that asbestos-related death
rates would be nearly 100%, yet had done nothing about it. This spurred
the EPA to request an outside agency to perform an audit of the activities
surrounding the mine, which was released in April of 2001, one day
after W.R. Grace filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On October 23, 2002,
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the addition of
the Libby site to the National
Priority List for Superfund sites.
Abestos legislation in the 108th Congress focused on two key bills.
One was Senator Patty Murray's (D-WA) bill called the Ban Asbestos
in America Act S.1115,
which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban
asbestos in two years, conduct a public awareness campaign about asbestos,
invest in research and treatment of asbestos diseases, and issue a
study into the non-regulated forms of asbestos by the National Academies
and the EPA's Blue Ribbon Panel. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the
companion bill HR
2277 in the House. The bill never made it out of the committee
Asbestos legislation in the 109th Congress had little success. Early,
in May 2005, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the costly FAIR
852), which addresses asbestos victims' medical needs. The bill
would halt asbestos litigation by eliminating court cases altogether
and instead directly compensating victims from $140 billion fund created
from manufacturing and insurance company payments. While the bill
received support from prominent Republicans, including President Bush
and then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), it did not even
make it for a full vote on the Senate floor.
In early 2005, the 109th Congress also passed a unanimous vote to
make April 1st National Asbestos Awareness Day. The day is so named
to increase understanding in the public conscience of asbestos-related
Additional information from
the 108th Congress.
Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, Washington Post, Star Tribune,
Sacramento Bee, Greenwire, EPA, EEnews, Congressional Research Service,
The New York Times, SF Gate, The Billings Gazette, Minneapolis
Star Tribune, and the Library of Congress.
Contributed by David R. Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern,
Anne Smart, 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, and Sargon de Jesus, 2007
AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Background section includes material from AGI's Update
on Asbestos for the 108th and 109th Congresses.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI
Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on August 20, 2007.