The first time I came to Capitol Hill to advocate for a ban on asbestos was on the heels of receiving the worst news of my life – my husband, Alan, was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Before Alan’s diagnosis, I had never heard of mesothelioma, couldn’t pronounce it, and just learned doctors couldn’t cure it. We were a typical American family – trusting that our government would protect our air, water, and soil from toxins. I had no idea asbestos was still legal in our country. I thought surely with awareness and education Congress would ban asbestos.
When it comes to banning asbestos, I now know it’s not just the slow nature of legislating or the lack of awareness that is holding us back; even more so, it’s the forces we are up against. Asbestos is found in our homes, schools, workplaces and even the brakes in our cars. When Congress bans asbestos, the companies that have profited from its use will have a harder time denying their responsibility for the deaths and diseases asbestos causes.
It’s that simple. The asbestos industry has known since the 1930s that exposure to asbestos causes cancer, but they continue to callously cover-up the dangers to protect profits.
But this is not a problem of the past. Between 1984 and 2015, the United States consumed 1,038,481 metric tons of asbestos “to meet manufacturing needs.” All the while, asbestos diseases have killed up to 15,000 Americans each year.
Just last week, the Center for Public Integrityreleased a scathing report that found Ford Motors has spent millions to evade accountability. According to the report, “Ford has spent nearly $40 million funding journal articles and expert testimony concluding there is no evidence brake mechanics are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma. This finding, repeated countless times in courtrooms and law offices over the past 15 years, is an attempt at scientific misdirection aimed at extricating Ford from lawsuits, critics say.”
According to OSHA and the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Ford was well aware of danger its brakes presented. A 1971 memo uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity shows Ford chose not to pursue alternatives because “the cost penalty is severe ($1.25/car just for front-end brakes).”
Funding dubious reports is not all that Ford has done to evade legal accountability. Ford was also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Civil Justice Task Force. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, this task force is charged with writing legislation to “make it harder for consumers to get the full measure of damages a jury would award if they are injured or killed by dangerous products.”
In 2007, the ALEC Civil Justice Task Force adopted the “Asbestos Claims Transparency Act,” which allows asbestos defendants to delay trials in asbestos litigation. The saying “delayed justice is denied justice” applies even more so in the case of asbestos victims, who typically have only months to live. Any delay means they may not live to the end of their trials. This benefits asbestos defendants’ bottom lines because they often have to pay less if the victim is dead.
To date, seventeen states have seen a version of this legislation including California, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The federal counterpart of this bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year and is currently before the U.S. Senate.
The day after the Center for Public Integrity released its report on Ford, the auto giant announced that it was dropping its ALEC membership, but its investment in ALEC has already paid dividends when it comes asbestos.
Asbestos is killing our future. While Congress can’t bring back my husband or the thousands of others whose lives have been stolen by asbestos, Congress can chose to protect the public by banning asbestos and demanding transparency from the industry. With greater awareness and a true sense of responsibility, asbestos exposure and deaths can be prevented.
Reinstein is president/CEO and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), the largest independent nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to preventing asbestos-caused diseases through education, advocacy, and community initiatives.