A bill introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), coinciding with a massive national awareness campaign by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund may soon put asbestos exposure near the forefront of American consciousness.
The goal of the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act is to modernize the 1988 Asbestos Information Act, signed by Ronald Reagan. It aims to create an electronic catalog of manufacturers and processors of asbestos who filed the mandatory one-time reporting required by the Asbestos Information Act to the national register. Most of these entities submitted reports prior to the widespread use of the internet and the READ Act is geared toward making this information more accessible for citizens. Elsewhere in Washington, the EWG Action fund has begun Asbestos Nation, a large-scale research and informative campaign to highlight the amount of asbestos in the U.S, as well as the risks and dangers that it poses. Additionally, the campaign has uncovered difficult-to-obtain port records that are useful in aggregating the total amount of asbestos that enters the country.
Despite the 1988 law and a 1989 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ban of asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act, asbestos is still legal in the U.S. As of January, 2014, 55 countries ban asbestos according to the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat; however, the EPA ban was swiftly overturned in Federal Appeals Court in the U.S. The court could not find enough evidence that asbestos was dangerous enough to the American public, creating doubts about the usefulness of the Toxic Substances Control Act. According to the EWG research of port records, 8.2 million pounds of asbestos entered the country through 23 seaports from 2006-2014, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 82,000 of the 964,000 pounds of asbestos imports in 2014 went unaccounted for. The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die annually from asbestos exposure, with both EWG and Durbin estimating that it claims up to 10,000 Americans annually.
Although the statistics appear alarming, asbestos awareness does not resonate with the American people, nor has it become a bipartisan opportunity in Washington. The asbestos lobby successfully defeated the 1989 ban and has spent several millions worldwide fighting restrictive measures. It will be interesting to see what kind of traction the READ Act will receive in Congress, given the current partisan environment. And perhaps more importantly, does the READ Act affect electability one way or the other? While EWG may bring about enough public awareness to pull the READ Act through Congress, onto the President’s desk, and into law, will information and awareness in and of itself be enough to bring about a change in U.S. asbestos policy?
Additional Sources: List of countries that ban asbestos: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat