Earlier today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019 (HR 1603), which Representative Suzanne Bonamici and colleagues introduced to address the fact that the United States still hasn’t banned asbestos, despite the overwhelming evidence that it continues to harm workers who are exposed to the carcinogenic substance. The bill would “Amend the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to direct EPA, within one year after the date of enactment of the bill, to ban the manufacturing, processing, use, and distribution in commerce of asbestos and any mixture or article containing asbestos.”
Sixty other countries have banned asbestos. Last month, EPA issued a rule that would give the agency additional approval over asbestos manufacture, importation, and use, but doesn’t actually ban the dangerous material — and leaves open the possibility that it could approve new uses of asbestos. The hearing began with a statement from, and questions for, EPA assistant administrator Alexandra Dunn about this proposal and how it differs from the introduced bill.
The first witness testifying in favor of the legislation was Linda Reinstein, founder of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and tireless advocate to protect workers from this deadly hazard. “I’m neither a lobbyist nor an attorney, I’m a mesothelioma widow,” she told the committee. The photo of her late husband, Alan Reinstein, beside her on the table represents “hundreds of thousands of painful, premature, and preventable deaths,” she explained in her powerful statement. Her written testimony provides statistics on the importation, use, and exposures to asbestos; highlights ways the Trump administration EPA is failing to protect workers and consumers appropriately; and explains the proposed legislation’s impacts.
Next, Rebecca Reindel, Senior Safety Specialist at AFL-CIO, explained how workers are exposed to asbestos and how deadly the consequences are. She noted that mesothelioma deaths in 2017 were higher than projected, and that many of these deaths are in workers under age 55 — who entered the workplace after asbestos regulations of the 1980s, but obviously were not sufficiently protected by those rules. “To date, EPA has totally failed to take action to
stop the future use of asbestos or address exposure to legacy asbestos,” her written testimony states. “The AFL-CIO urges the committee and the Congress to move without delay to enact this lifesaving bill.”
After hearing from an American Chemistry Council witness about the use of asbestos in water chlorination, the committee received input from Celeste Monforton, who testified on behalf of the American Public Health Association (written statement here). “There is no debate in the public health community that asbestos is a carcinogen and there is no safe level of exposure,” she said in explaining why APHA has called for an asbestos ban for more than a decade and now supports HR 1603. For many cancers, we don’t know causes or how to prevent them, she noted, but we know exactly how to prevent asbestos-related cancers. The fact that we haven’t taken the necessary steps to do so imposes huge emotional and financial costs on families and communities. In his questions, Representative Paul Tonko recognized that the costs of adopting asbestos alternatives (a common complaint from regulated industries) can’t be seen in isolation, but must be measured against the costs imposed by continued exposure to a public health hazard.
The hearing occurred hours after publication of Lisa Friedman’s New York Times scoop “E.P.A. Leaders Disregarded Agency’s Experts in Issuing Asbestos Rule, Memos Show.” Friedman reports that two internal memos show EPA scientists and lawyers highlighting problems with the agency’s proposed rule, but the agency apparently disregarded their advice:
“Rather than allow for (even with restrictions) any new uses for asbestos, E.P.A. should seek to ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit — and because there are adequate alternatives to asbestos,” staff members wrote. … The internal memos show that E.P.A. staff members considered the agency’s review process and the rule itself seriously flawed.
Friedman also notes that this isn’t the first time EPA has disregarded its scientists’ advice:
It was not the first time administration has sidelined government scientists. Under President Trump, the E.P.A. has rolled back environmental protections and come under criticism for relaxing rules on toxic chemicals.
Last month, the agency weakened a proposed standard for cleaning up groundwater pollution caused by toxic chemicals. In March, it scaled back a proposed ban on a deadly chemical in paint strippers. And it has rejected a proposed ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that has sickened farm workers and been linked to developmental disabilities in their children.
It’s refreshing to see Congress paying attention to evidence of how harmful asbestos is, since EPA seems content to ignore its scientists’ input.