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Victory in the fight against asbestos – From poster child for reform to litmus test for success

It’s easy to get disenchanted and even disheartened in DC. So many people arrive here with ambitious and genuine goals of changing the world only to be held back by political realities that so often plague Capitol Hill. I know this story all too well. Since 2004, I have been committed to banning asbestos. Before my husband, Alan, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer, I didn’t know this campaign was necessary. I was like so many others—blissfully unaware that the chemicals in the foods we ate, clothes we wore, water we drank and air we breathed were largely unregulated by our government. After Alan’s diagnosis, I learned the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, the law governing chemicals in our country, was so weak, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wasn’t even able to ban known toxic chemicals as notoriously poisonous as asbestos. I thought surely this could be addressed quickly so no other family had to go through what we were facing. That was not the case.

But 12 years later, after taking on the most powerful corporations and industries in the world, we are finally on the path to victory. With the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, an end to the asbestos crisis in the United States is in sight.

{mosads}To say that this has not been an easy road is a huge understatement. If a story ever demonstrated a David vs. Goliath fight, it is ours. The chemical industry fought meaningful reform every step of the way. From 2012 – 2015, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported the American Chemistry Council, along with chemical giants Dow, DuPont, BASF, 3M, Honeywell and Koch Industries, spent over $245 million lobbying lawmakers.

There is a lot at stake for the chemical industry, but there is even more for the asbestos victims community. We know the true cost of government inaction as we have watched our families and communities pay the ultimate price for corporate greed. The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) organized nine Congressional staff briefings, brought victims to testify at six Congressional hearings, and served as stakeholders during four White House meetings. Our victory demonstrates the power of a story, the power of the American people, and the power of commitment to a cause.

Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) called asbestos “the poster child for TSCA reform.” Asbestos will also be the litmus test for the efficacy of this bill.

While this is a landmark step forward, the legislation that is going to the President’s desk is not perfect. Under this legislation, the EPA may take as long as seven years to assess, regulate, and ban asbestos. In order for this bill to succeed, we have to learn from the past.

Under the 1976 TSCA, the EPA conducted a ten-year study of asbestos, and in 1989 the EPA issued a regulation banning most asbestos-containing products. However, before the ban could go into effect, the asbestos manufacturers sued, arguing that EPA’s regulatory procedure was flawed, that there was no substantial evidence of risk from asbestos exposure, and that the EPA did not use the least burdensome regulation to achieve its goals of minimum reasonable risk. The asbestos industry won, and in 1991, the ban was overturned.

Key hurdles causing the EPA’s previous asbestos ban to fail have been eliminated in the new legislation. Each year, the EPA Administrator will evaluate 10 chemical substances, prioritizing those listed as “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic” on the 2014 TSCA Work Plan for Chemical Assessments. Because of the devastating effect of asbestos on human health, and thanks to the tireless work put in by asbestos victims and Congressional allies, asbestos will receive expedited action. Additionally, the regulation of asbestos will not be stipulated by market or financial concerns. Instead, substances that “present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment,” will be regulated “without consideration of costs or other non-risk factors.”  

The asbestos crisis our nation faces is due in large part to the fact that the asbestos industry thought they could pass the buck onto someone else. With asbestos diseases taking years – sometimes decades – to manifest, they knew that it would be someone else’s problem. We must ensure the buck is not passed again. While the ball is now squarely in the EPA’s court, it is on Congress to see this through. I look forward to continuing our work to ensure this law does what it is intended to do – protect the American people. 

Reinstein is President/CEO, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO)

The views expressed on the Congress Blog are the author’s own and not the views of The Hill.

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