September 17, 2009 The Pump Handle 3Comment

Today, Andrew Schneider at Cold Truth tells us  that way back in April, acting Surgeon General Steven Galson issued a long-awaited statement about the dangers of asbestos, a statement urged for years by asbestos-disease victims, their families and public health advocates.   Galson’s action was so stealth (intentionally, perhaps?) that the individuals who had been calling for it were never even notified–Not the Senators who marshalled a  Senate Resolution urging a Surgeon General’s warning or the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) who supported the congressional efforts.  The Resolution called on the Surgeon General “to warn and educate people that asbestos exposure may be hazardous to their health.”

Schneider recounts in “Asbestos warning finally issued by Surgeon General, or was it?” how asbestos-disease advocates asking for the warning had been wholey ignored by the G.W. Bush Administration. 

The Surgeon General might have already crossed this task off his to-do list because he technically issued the statement in April but I see it differently.  Given that the Senate called on him to “warn and educate people,” and realizing that his statement wasn’t even noticed by the very people who were most interested in it, his action can’t seriously count as meeting the resolution’s terms.  

I know that ADAO was heartened to learn this week that the Surgeon General had made this statement on the dangers of asbestos.  ADAO director Linda Reinstein graciously said:

“As a mesothelioma widow, I am pleased to see the Surgeon General’s statement, as asbestos has been a known carcinogen for more than 30 years.  ADAO is excited to be able to advance educational efforts with his statement, which strongly reaffirms the need to ban asbestos.”

I agree and hope Galson’s statement is only a first step for the Surgeon General’s office.  Warning and educating the public must be more than simply posting a notice on a website, especially one as vanilla pudding as 

“I urge every American to become aware of the public health issues of asbestos exposure and the steps they can take to protect their health”


“it is important for all Americans to be aware of asbestos levels in their environment.”

What about a warning that gives the toll of asbestos-related disease, how the prevalence of asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers is on the rise?  

How about explaining that workers in numerous occupations are still exposed to asbestos, including auto mechanics working on brakes and clutches, and miners who encounter asbestos seems while extracing other ores?

What about taking the lead for the Obama Administration on explaining why a ban on all forms of asbestos makes solid public health sense and noting that 40 industrialized countries have already done so?

As Andrew Schneider reminds us in his post, President Obama’s pick for Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, has not yet been confirmed.  Eventually the calls for Surgeon General leadership on asbestos-disease prevention will shift from Steve Galson’s to her desk.  ADAO and the larger public health community will eagerly waiting her response.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is with the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She is currently chair of the OHS Section of the American Public Health Association, and worked with members of the OHS Section to propose a policy resolution calling on APHA to support a ban in the U.S. on all forms of asbestos.   The resolution will be debated and voted on in November at the APHA Annual Meeting.

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