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As Judiciary Committee Discusses Asbestos Lawsuits, Senator Murray Calls on Congress to Ban Asbestos

Mar 05 2003

Murray Statement at Hearing Calls Attention to Need to Ban Asbestos

"Today the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about how the proliferation of asbestos lawsuits has hurt our economy and some asbestos victims. Congress must carefully consider how to proceed in dealing with this issue.

I am concerned that the current debate surrounding asbestos litigation reform is focusing only on part of the story. The current dialogue suggests that the high number of asbestos lawsuits is a function solely of an overly litigious society.

We need to consider that the number of lawsuits is also a function of the toxicity of this hazardous substance, coupled with the long latency period of diseases caused by exposure to it. The other part of the story is that asbestos is a carcinogen with no known level of safe exposure, and that companies used large amounts of it for far too long.

For decades manufacturers used asbestos in everything from paint to insulation to brakes. Approximately 30 million tons of asbestos were consumed in this country between 1900 and 1980, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. And in many instances, companies chose to make and market asbestos products even though industry studies conducted as early as the 1930s showed that asbestos causes deadly diseases.

While asbestos litigation may be affecting people today, asbestos has been hurting people in this country since the turn of the century. Estimates of annual cancer deaths caused by asbestos range from between 4,000 to 9,700 per year. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people a year die just from mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs and internal organs which is caused only by asbestos. And about 65,000 Americans now suffer from asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs which makes breathing difficult and can be fatal.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1940 and 1980, 27 million Americans had significant occupational exposure to asbestos. Typically it can take between 15 and 40 years for people exposed to asbestos to show symptoms of the deadly diseases caused by exposure to it.

According to testimony before the Senate Budget Committee in January, the economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that asbestos bankruptcies have cost firms between $325 and $625 million, and that workers and their families have lost $200 million in wages alone. But when we hear the statistics about how asbestos litigation is affecting the economy, we need to consider what asbestos use overall has cost our nation in lost lives and productivity.

According to Dr. Barry Castleman in Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, economists estimated in 1983 that the gross income loss to 420,000 workers and their families over 60 years (1967 - 2027), because these workers were expected to die prematurely from asbestos diseases, was $326 billion. As we contemplate asbestos litigation reform, we should not forget the enormous human toll that has been paid - and will continue to be paid - because of our reliance on asbestos.

We could have avoided the problems of asbestos litigation today if only we'd banned asbestos years ago when we first had conclusive evidence of just how dangerous it is.

But we didn't. Companies continued using asbestos to make pipes, floor tiles, wallboard, roofing shingles, fire proof blankets, insulation, brakes, clutch facing and lots of other products.

In fact, it is still legal today for some products to be made using asbestos. In 2001, companies in the United States consumed 13,000 metric tons of asbestos making roofing products, gaskets, friction materials and other products.

In contrast, asbestos has been banned in these 20 countries: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The entire EU will ban asbestos by 2005.

In this country, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos in 1989 under the Toxic Substances Control Act, legislation that had been passed with asbestos specifically in mind. But the asbestos industry challenged the asbestos ban in court. In 1991, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned EPA's regulations, and the first Bush Administration chose not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

I have not yet seen proposed legislation drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee to limit asbestos lawsuits. But in the midst of all this, I can't help coming back to my fundamental belief: given the damage asbestos has done to public health, and the impact on the economy of asbestos litigation, asbestos must be banned in this country.

To limit asbestos liability in the very long-term, we need to stop adding it to products on purpose. And we also need to make sure that asbestos fibers aren't in our consumer products, such as vermiculite insulation, by accident.

That is why last Congress I introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act (S. 2641), and I will be introducing this legislation again soon. First and foremost, this bill protects public health by doing what the EPA tried to do 14 years ago: ban asbestos. The bill requires EPA to ban it by 2005.

Second, the bill requires EPA to conduct a public education campaign about the risks of asbestos products. Within 6 months of passage, the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission will begin educating people about how to safely handle insulation made with asbestos-tainted vermiculite. I believe the government needs to warn people that their insulation, if made with vermiculite, may be contaminated with asbestos.

The legislation also requires EPA to conduct a survey to determine which foreign and domestic products being consumed in the United States today have been made with asbestos. There is no solid, up-to-date information about which products contain it, although EPA has estimated that as many as 3,000 products still do.

The survey will provide the foundation for a broader education campaign so consumers and workers will know how to handle as safely as possible asbestos products that were purchased before the ban goes into effect.

Third, the legislation requires funding to improve treatment for asbestos diseases. The Ban Asbestos in America Act requires the creation of a National Mesothelioma Registry to improve tracking of the disease. In addition, the bill authorizes funding for 7 mesothelioma treatment centers nationwide to improve treatments for and awareness of this fatal cancer.

Finally, the Ban Asbestos in America Act of requires the creation of an EPA Blue Ribbon Panel to coordinate federal asbestos protocols, standards and regulations and to consider ways to improve protections for workers and consumers.

I urge my colleagues to remember the enormous human and social costs of our country's prolonged reliance on asbestos as we consider asbestos litigation reform legislation. This part of the asbestos story must not be ignored or forgotten. And we must do all we can to prevent future harm caused by exposure to deadly asbestos. We must pass legislation to ban asbestos in the United States once and for all."