The deadly legacy of asbestos has cost Montanans dearly.
Montana’s Senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines, know all too well how the scourge of asbestos has savaged the beautiful town of Libby. More than 400 residents have died and thousands more have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases since W.R. Grace closed its vermiculite mine in 1990.
This is why an asbestos ban is especially crucial to Montanans, perhaps more than anyone else in the United States.
“My communities in Montana are eager for progress… we’ve known for a while the dangers of asbestos and we want to protect others from the tragedies we’ve seen in Montana,” Daines said in a recent Senate hearing.
But then the senator announced something curious. He is working on legislation that would simply prohibit “new uses” of asbestos. That would fall tragically short of a ban that would protect Montanans and the nation from the deadly carcinogen which continues to be imported and used today.
A bill to halt “new uses” of asbestos is a false flag masquerading as a ban. This tactic, referred to as a SNUR or “Significant New Use Rule” by EPA regulators, is designed to give cover instead of take action. In fact, in 2018, when the EPA proposed a similar SNUR rule on asbestos, nearly 20,000 public comments were submitted in opposition.
The real issue is the risk posed by uses of asbestos that already exist, not the industry’s smokescreen of possible new uses. According to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. presently imports raw chrysotile asbestos (for use in chlor-alkali diaphragms), as well as a slew of asbestos-containing products, including brake linings, knitted fabrics, rubber sheets (i.e. sheet gaskets), and cement pipe. Independent testing by other organizations has confirmed that some makeup brands, baby powder, and crayons are contaminated with asbestos as well.
There is overwhelming scientific consensus that asbestos is a carcinogen and there is no safe or controlled use, yet some companies continue to put profits over people’s health. The chlor-alkali industry which produces industrial chlorine and caustic soda insists on using asbestos in its production process. Safer alternatives to asbestos are available and are used in other countries. Just last year, the chlor-alkali industry doubled its asbestos imports — sourced primarily from Brazilian and Russian mines — to a staggering 750 metric tons.. Despite the fact that nearly 40,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-linked disease, they brazenly claim that their “use [of the mineral] does not pose an unreasonable health risk to workers.”
The public health disaster in Libby should be an important lesson for us. It’s a lesson about greed, corruption, and the human cost of inaction. The cleanup of the Libby Superfund sites have cost taxpayers $596 million. In fact, it’s taken 17 years to remove one of the eight Libby Superfund sites from the National Priorities List.
There is no price tag for the suffering and death. For the patients who have been silenced by asbestos and their families left behind — in Montana and throughout the nation — we owe them more than dollars.
What they deserve is a true asbestos ban — one without loopholes or exemptions, one that stops all imports of raw asbestos, asbestos-containing products and contaminated goods used by kids and families. The U.S. needs to ban asbestos once and for all.
During the past two years, the EPA has repeatedly undermined public health and the environment. Regulatory rollbacks and a complete failure to implement the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act have demonstrated an overt negligence of the Agency’s responsibility to manage, mitigate, or eliminate chemical exposures.
There is a bill in Congress that will solve that: the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act (ARBAN) of 2019. Sen. Tester is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which is endorsed by the AFL-CIO, American Public Health Associations, Montana Public Health Association, and other leading occupational safety and health organizations. If passed, it would ban the manufacturing, processing, use, and distribution of asbestos within a year of being signed. Vitally important, it will has ban the Libby amphibole that has caused the pain and disease in Libby, bringing true protection to Montanans and all Americans.
It’s time to embrace bipartisanship and take the legislative steps to ban all uses, old and new, without exemptions or loopholes. Together with Senators Tester and Daines, I have confidence that Montana will boldly lead the nation with legislation to finally ban asbestos once and for all.
Linda Reinstein is president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!