Will this Congress be the one that finally acts on asbestos?

Will this Congress be the one that finally acts on asbestos?
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You may think asbestos is yesterday’s problem, but it is not. It’s today’s problem, and — if Congress fails to act — the problem will continue.

Asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans every year and, since it is still not banned, imports are on the rise again. In August of 2018, U.S. asbestos imports rose 2,000 percent just from the month prior.

But lawmakers are not taking action to prevent exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen. The recent introduction of the bicameral Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019 (ARBAN) would ban all asbestos imports and use, without loopholes or exclusions.

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For years, victims and their loved ones have urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban this deadly toxin. We’ve pushed for regulatory tools like a “Right to Know” database that would require the U.S. asbestos industry to disclose details about how, when, and where any asbestos-containing products are being imported and put to use. Unfortunately, the EPA denied our Right to Know petition.  

However, shortly after our filing, attorneys general from 15 states filed a petition for the EPA to release this same information.

The scientific community agrees that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, yet shockingly, U.S. laws place no restriction on asbestos imports and allow almost all uses of the substance. This is an embarrassing contrast with the 60 countries that have already banned asbestos and demonstrates a failure of American leadership.

Until the EPA eliminates the loophole exempting asbestos from the same reporting requirements that apply to thousands of other chemicals, the American public will remain at risk.

In light of the EPA’s failure to act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking great effort to pick up the slack, independently testing products for asbestos and alerting the public. Just this month, the FDA issued a consumer warning after discovering asbestos in make-up products marketed to children and tweens at Claire’s and Justice stores. However, the FDA unfortunately does not have the regulatory power to keep these products off of our shelves.

We’re taking the EPA to court, and we expect to win. The facts — and the FDA — are on our side, but we need Congress to join this fight, too. That’s what makes ARBAN so important. This bill would ban products that are contaminated by asbestos — like Johnson & Johnson’s notorious but ever-popular baby powder — from being sold to unsuspecting consumers.

In addition to banning asbestos imports and usage, the bill would also take a big step forward in helping the public understand and reduce the risks of “legacy” asbestos present in our homes, schools and businesses. Despite the millions of tons of asbestos that are part of our built environment across the country, no comprehensive risk assessment has taken place in over 35 years. Knowing where asbestos is located is critical to keeping people safe from unnecessary or accidental exposure.

Despite decades of irrefutable evidence of the dangers of asbestos, action to protect the public from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and other deadly diseases has been weak and slow. Inadequate regulatory laws riddled with loopholes prevented the EPA from taking action, even when they did try to enact a ban in 1989.

However, that changed in 2016, when a bipartisan congressional effort bolstered the EPA’s ability to regulate chemicals. They recognized that if the EPA could not ban a substance as hazardous as asbestos, its hands would be tied for all other unsafe chemicals.

We welcomed the new law and were encouraged when asbestos was selected as one of its top 10 chemicals for review and regulation. However, we didn’t count on the Trump administration.

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Trump’s EPA — which seemingly seeks to protect industry profits rather than the American people —  has weakened and narrowed its evaluation of asbestos risks in an effort to minimize the scope and impact of any potential regulation.

It is egregious that the EPA has been able to get away with this. The EPA has abdicated its responsibility time and again where asbestos is concerned. Congress must step in. The bipartisan coalition in Congress that strengthened TSCA should not accept the EPA’s willful failure to take meaningful action on asbestos. Congress can finally do something to end this man-made disaster. They can pass ARBAN. They can provide real oversight to the EPA to help them do their job. They can protect us all from deadly asbestos once and for all.

Dr. Raja Flores is a recognized leader in the field of thoracic surgery for his pioneering efforts in the treatment of mesothelioma.

Linda Reinstein is the president and chief executive of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which seeks to eliminate asbestos-caused diseases and protect the rights of asbestos victims.