Gayla Benefield and Les Skramstad in Libby

File photo: In 2005, Les Skramstad, left, and Gayla Benefield carry wooden crosses for each Libby resident who died from exposure to asbestos. Skramstad died of asbestos-related disease in 2007, and Benefield and four of her five children have also been diagnosed with the disease.

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A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate Thursday is the sixth Congressional effort in the past two decades to ban the importation and sale of asbestos.

Because of the legacy of asbestos-related disease in and around Libby, both Montana senators were lobbied intensely to sign on to the bill as co-sponsors.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, became a cosponsor shortly before the bill was introduced Thursday. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, ultimately decided against co-sponsoring the bill at this time, saying he would consider supporting it at a later date.

"Asbestos has taken the lives of too many Montanans, and banning this harmful substance will prevent the future loss of life," Tester said Thursday. "Just ask the families in Libby and Troy, Montana. There's no place for asbestos in our communities."

Daines said Thursday, "I support the ongoing regulatory review regarding the importation of certain products containing asbestos. It is paramount that we prioritize public health and avoid another tragedy like we saw in Libby, and I will carefully assess the need for this legislation when that regulatory review is complete."

Anti-asbestos activists thought the Frank J. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which was signed into law in 2016, provided a road map for the eventual banning of asbestos — particularly when the chemical was designated by the EPA as one of the first the agency would review under the new law.

But that process has been slowed considerably by the Trump Administration. Internal rule changes mean that the risk assessments under the law for asbestos and other chemicals will be slower and more limited than previously envisioned.

President Trump has called asbestos a "miracle" and has said its use should be legal.

The EPA would be able to make the manufacture, processing, use, commercial distribution, and disposal of asbestos illegal within 18 months of the bill's passage, as opposed to the process in current law that could take seven years or more.

Linda Reinstein, CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a group that has pushed Congress for more than two decades to ban the substance, said Thursday, "It's irresponsible to wait any longer to ban a chemical that's long been a known killer. Decades of evidence have led to the conclusion that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and there is no acceptable exposure level."

She added, "The Montana delegation has seen firsthand the human cost of inaction on asbestos."

Asbestos-related disease, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, and asbestosis, is blamed for the deaths of 15,000 Americans each year. Cases of mesothelioma, which is thought to be solely caused by exposure to asbestos, are increasing despite the decline in asbestos use. One reason is the latency period. Asbestos-related disease sufferers often do not show symptoms for 30 years or more after exposure.

Also, imports of asbestos into the United States have soared in recent years. The chlor-alkali industry, which makes chlorine, is the largest industrial user of asbestos, and the industry has a powerful lobby.

Other ban attempts over the years have come up short.

Globally, 55 countries have banned asbestos. Next year, Canada is poised to become the 56th, despite being an asbestos exporter for many years.

"Don't get me started," said Dr. Raja Flores, a thoracic surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, Thursday. Flores, who often treats patients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease, said, "Asbestos is a killer. The evidence is clear. This bill is a life-saving bill. It can save more lives than I can with my knife. Any politician who doesn't get that is protecting some group that would lose money if asbestos were banned."

Flores, who has operated on patients from Libby, said the Montana town's experience is a perfect example. "Families have been wiped out by asbestos there," Flores said. He chairs a Libby-focused research group that has published multiple papers on the topic.

Gayla Benefield, 74, of Libby has for more than 20 years been an activist on the issue of the town's asbestos exposure. She lost both of her parents to asbestosis, and she and four of her five children have also been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease.

"A full ban is completely necessary. So many people have died here waiting for some legitimate effort on behalf of the federal government to stop what has happened to us," she said Thursday.

The bill's primary sponsor is Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat of Oregon. Co-sponsors are Tester and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. "We are working on getting more co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle," Merkley said Thursday.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said Thursday, "We have a president who has routinely dismissed the risk of asbestos, and he has appointed a former chemical industry lobbyist and a scientific consultant for chemical companies as the top officials in charge of regulating toxic chemicals. We're way beyond the fox guarding the henhouse. We're talking about the fox being hired to do henhouse design/build, including the security system.

"That's why it's so important that Senator Merkley, Senator Tester, and their colleagues are standing up, once again, to introduce a bill that would ban asbestos for once and for all." 

The bill is endorsed by a wide range of health organizations, including the American Public Health Association and Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease.

The bill is named for Reinstein's husband, Alan, who died in 2006 of mesothelioma.

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