Summary of Hearings on Asbestos Legislation
On June 12, 2007 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee met to discuss the health effects of asbestos exposure and proper mitigation measures to limit exposure. Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) expressed deep concern about this issue, recognizing that millions of Americans are at risk today. From 1992-2002 over 2,000 people died each year from asbestosis and mesothelioma according to a study done by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This number does not reflect all of the asbestos exposure related deaths, which are believed to be much higher. Boxer noted that despite the number deaths the U.S. continues to import over 2,530 metric tons of asbestos and over 90,000 metric tons of products containing asbestos such as cement, automotive friction products, and roofing products. Boxer expressed strong support of S. 742 the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007 which was introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).
S. 742 was introduced on March 1, 2007. In effect this 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." The bill also calls for NIOSH to conduct a study on the health effects of other asbestiform fibers and methods for analyzing, measuring and labeling practices for asbestos. This is Murray's third attempt to pass this legislation in six years. In this attempt Murray is working with Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) to address Republican concerns over the ban. Previous efforts were made to ban asbestos in 1989 when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, William Reilly, attempted to add regulations to the Toxic Substances and Control Act that would phase out the use of asbestos in all products by 1997. However, in 1991 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned some of the regulations. As a result no new products containing asbestos were imported however, any products containing asbestos that were already being imported could continue to be imported.
Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) agreed that there is no debate over the deadly health problems caused by exposure to amphibole and chrysotile form asbestos. However, Inhofe believed that more debate is needed over non-asbestiform minerals. While some minerals have the same chemical make up as asbestos they have "entirely different physical structures." Inhofe quoted the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) which stated " the counting criteria developed for analysis of asbestos in the workplace or in commercial products may not be appropriate for direct application to what is currently referred to as naturally occurring asbestos." Inhofe presented a chart comparing dangerous mineral asbestos and non-asbestiform minerals and noted the obvious difference that the non-asbestiform mineral was not a slender fiber but a bulky cleavage fragment. According to research these particles do not pose the same health effects as asbestos but yet they are still regulated by the EPA, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the Mining Safety and Health Administration. Inhofe felt that because these minerals do not pose the same health risks they should be treated differently. Inhofe noted that previous legislation recognized the mineralogical and medical differences and hoped that future legislation would do the same.
Dr. Weissman, Dr. Miller, and Dr. Marty conveyed to the committee the different health risks associated with exposure to asbestos. The asbestos fibers penetrate deep inside the lungs where they cannot be expelled nor absorbed. Over a 10-50 year time span the fibers damage the surrounding tissue and cause cancer or other disease. Some fibers are small enough to get into the chest lining and get spread through out the body. Children are especially vulnerable to the risks of exposure because they breathe more per body weight thus increasing the ingestion level of asbestos. Once symptoms begin they rarely regress. Health problems can only be treated on a symptoms basis but there is no cure for the underlying problem.
While each concluded that amphibole asbestos is the most lethal form of asbestos all three witnesses stated that all forms of asbestos can have devastating health consequences. Exposure can come from a number of sources other than just the work place. According to Marty, in 1986 California identified asbestos as a toxic air contaminate in urban air due to its use in building materials and brake linings. Miller added that asbestos has also been labeled a carcinogen by the EPA. As of now there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos, even small amounts of exposure could have lasting health consequences. Each witness concluded that further research in asbestos is needed and the solution to saving lives from the health effects of asbestos is reducing exposure.
Except for Dr. Wylie and Dr. Weill the second panel also came to the same conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Wylie and Weill disagreed on the basis that an acceptable level of risk must be determined. Both also stated that exposure to cleavage fragments pose no threat because there have been no cases reported of disease related to cleavage fragment exposure. However Dr. Lemen was in disagreement. Dr. Lemen stated that only until "there exists irrefutable data" on both human and animal test subjects that demonstrate appropriate safe levels of exposure, any fibrous like mineral must be banned. Any asbestos definition should include all respirable asbestiform minerals including cleavage fragments.
Linda Reinstein provided the committee with an emotional take on the asbestos issue. Reinstein is a mesothelioma widow, her husband Alan Reinstein died after a three year battle with mesothelioma. Several audience members were moved to tears as she described her heartbreaking ordeal. Reinstein urged that asbestos be banned now and requested funding for treatment of asbestos related illnesses.
The U.S. does not import any of the deadly amphibole asbestos but products containing chrysotile asbestos are still imported. While the risks are less with chrysotile asbestos than that of amphibole asbestos, Boxer stated that no risk is acceptable and she would move as quickly as possible to get this ban in place. She concluded "it would be a proud day for the Senate if we could do something that, frankly, all Americans thought we already did."
A link to witness testimony can be viewed here.
Sources: Environment and Energy Daily; Hearing testimony.
Contributed by David McCormick, AGI/AIPG 2007 Summer Intern
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Last updated on July 26, 2007