September 25, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 6Comment

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to push a bill in Congress to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). We’ve written previously (e.g., here, here, here) about this flawed legislation (S.697). Regrettably, it has 55 Republicans and Democrats supporting it and the full Senate will likely be voting on the bill in the coming weeks.

Although EDF and ACC assert broad support for the legislation, I wish the Senators would pay attention to the 450 health, environmental and labor groups that oppose S.697.  Their coalition is diverse and includes large organizations such as Autism Speaks; the Union of Concerned Scientists; the American Nurses Association; and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and local groups such as the Air Alliance of Houston; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine; and the Ohio Nurses Association. The ACC and EDF seem to have the deep pockets to push S.697 on lawmakers, but the concerns of hundreds of health and environmental organizations should not be discounted by the Senators.

Updating a law that is nearly 40 years old—and the programs and procedures that implemented the law—is no simple feat. I’ve seen briefing sheets, policy memos, and flowcharts that attempt to explain the bill. I suspect there are probably less than 50 people nationwide who understand all that is in the bill. There’s an even small group who can explain how the legislation would change (more importantly, improve) the existing program for assessing the health and environmental risk of existing and new chemicals.

Frankly, I get twisted in knots reading the bill, so I ask myself a simple question:

“Will S.697 significantly help to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals and the health harm associated with them?”

Page after page in the bill describes new requirements for EPA to issue rules, prepare guidance documents, implement procedures, and the like. I see a lot of process, but not much expected output. I don’t see any guarantee that chemicals in use will have to be proven safe. Nor do I see any promise that the public will have access to the information we need to know the hazard and protect ourselves.

On the eve of Mesothelioma Awareness Day (September 26) I have a wish: that the 55 Senator who support S.697 use asbestos as the litmus test to evaluate its adequacy. Afterall, asbestos is the poster child for TSCA’s failure.

Earlier this month, an international panel of experts published a key analysis for the Global Burden of Disease project. This latest analysis assessed the risk of disease relative to dozens of behavioral, environmental, and occupational hazards. Exposure to asbestos accounted for nearly two-thirds of the burden of all occupational carcinogens.

In the US alone, an estimated 3,000 men and women die each year from mesothelioma. Another 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-related lung, gastrointestinal, laryngeal, and ovarian cancers, as well as non-malignant lung and respiratory diseases.

EPA attempted in the 1980’s to use TSCA to ban asbestos, but their effort did not withstand an industry challenge. I don’t see anything in S.697 which mandates swift action to ban asbestos or other worst-of-the worst toxics.

There are families across the US whose lives have been changed forever because of an asbestos-related disease. The Senators who support S.697 could mark Mesothelioma Awareness Day by reaching out to a constituent who has suffered because of asbestos. The Senators could ask these constituents:

“What’s important to you in TSCA reform?”

I’ve no doubt these constituents would say:

“It should ensure that asbestos is banned.”

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who signed on as a co-sponsor in March of S.697, and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who signed on as a co-sponsor in July, could reach out to Steven’s family in Ohio. Steven died in 2014 from mesothelioma at age 62. His son says he misses a lot about his dad, but most of all for his guidance and wisdom.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who signed on as a co-sponsor of S.697 in March, and Senator Al Franken (D-MN), who signed on as a co-sponsor in July, could meet with John in Minnesota. John was diagnosed in 2014 with mesothelioma after working 42 years as a pipe fitter. John credits his wife Rosemary for helping him cope with his grueling medical treatments.

Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters (D-MI), who signed on as co-sponsors of S.697 in March could meet with Kenneth’s family in Michigan. He died from mesothelioma in 2013 at age 55. His daughter says “it hurts to think my daughter will not get to know her grandfather.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who signed on as a co-sponsor of S.697 in May, could meet with Patricia in Florida. She was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012 at age 52. She may have been exposed in a public school where she worked as a teacher for 25 years.

Before scheduling S.697 for a vote, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could reach out to Todd’s family in Kentucky. Todd died at age 39 from pleural mesothelioma. He was likely exposed to the deadly fibers while repairing brake linings on his car, or from exposed pipe insulation at his elementary school building.

I could find such a family for every Senator who’s a co-sponsor of S. 697. The list of victims goes on and on, in every state and probably in every US county. Their suffering and illness could have been prevented had policymakers heeded the warnings decades ago about the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Our nation’s law for addressing toxic substances is inadequate. Amendments to TSCA are necessary, but they must be meaningful. If the legislation fails to tackle the grave hazard of asbestos, then it is inadequate to address the tens of thousands of other chemicals to which we are exposed.

Senators should mark Mesothelioma Awareness Day by considering asbestos as the litmus test for the adequacy of any TSCA reform legislation. They’ll see that S.697 fails the test.

6 thoughts on “Asbestos, disease burden, and TSCA reform

  1. Thanks muchly for this analysis of the horrible bill and linking it to the killer dust. It’s kind pled too many people, including friends. And for making the connection to those who’ve signed on to the bill, especially “progressives” like Frankin. TSCA reform is not this bill.

  2. My husband is the “John, the pipefitter” you refer to – thank you for posting this – John fought this mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos for 2 1/2 years – he passed away December 4, 2016 – it makes me sad thinking that the first anniversary of his death is coming soon – it makes me happy to know that Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, senators from Minnesota have co-sponsored S-697!

  3. Rosemary,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is because of your willingness to speak out that laws will change. I am sorry for your loss.

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