News Releases

Asbestos Bill Introduced: Murray's Floor Statement

Jun 18 2002

Senator Murray Explains Her Bill to Protect Workers & Consumers

(Washington, D.C)- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray introduced the "Ban Asbestos in America Act" (S.2641).

Below is Senator Murray's statement on the bill in the Congressional Record.

Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, today I rise and join my colleagues Senators Baucus, Cantwell, Dayton and Wellstone in introducing legislation to improve protections for workers and consumers against a known carcinogen: asbestos.

The primary purpose of the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002 is to require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the substance by 2005.

People Think It's Been Banned. It Hasn't.

Most Americans believe that asbestos has already been banned. People have this misconception in part because EPA tried to ban it in 1989, and the ban was well publicized. But what wasn't so publicized was the fact that in 1991, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned EPA's ban, and the first Bush Administration didn't appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. While new uses of asbestos were banned, existing ones were not.

People also believe asbestos has been banned because the mineral has been heavily regulated, and some uses are now prohibited. But the sweeping ban that EPA worked for ten years to put in place never went into effect.

As a result, products such as asbestos clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, disc brake pads, gaskets and roof coatings still contain asbestos today. Had EPA's ban gone into effect, these products would no longer be allowed to contain this deadly substance.

Victims of Asbestos Exposure

This morning I met with three people who wish there had been better protections in place against the dangers of asbestos years ago. I had the honor of meeting Mrs. Susan Vento, the wife of the beloved Congressman Bruce Vento from Minnesota who died from a disease caused by asbestos in October of 2000 at the age of 60. Rep. Vento was exposed to asbestos when he worked in factories in St. Paul during college.

I also had the privilege of meeting Lt. Col. James Zumwalt, the son of the legendary Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who also died in 2000 of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs and internal organs caused by asbestos. Like so many others who served in the Navy, Admiral Zumwalt was exposed to asbestos during his military service.

In addition, I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Brian Harvey, a former English teacher from Washington State University and a survivor of the deadly disease. Like Congressman Vento, Mr. Harvey was exposed to asbestos working summers during college -- only Mr. Harvey worked in a timber mill in Shelton, Washington instead of in factories in St. Paul. Mr. Harvey received aggressive treatment from the University of Washington, and his triumph over the deadly disease offers all of us hope.

You don't have to tell Mrs. Vento, Lt. Colonel Zumwalt or Mr. Harvey that asbestos can kill, or that it hasn't been banned. Unfortunately, they already know about asbestos.

Rudy Barber & Fred Mirante

I have also heard from other Washington state residents about the devastating effects that asbestos exposure can have on people's lives. I'd like to take a moment to tell you about an e-mail I received from two of my constituents, Mr. Charles Barber and his wife, Ms. Karen Mirante, who live in Seattle. They wrote to me last year to express support for my efforts on asbestos. Mr. Barber and Ms. Mirante had just recently learned that both of their fathers were diagnosed with mesothelioma, the same deadly disease that took the lives of Congressman Vento and Admiral Zumwalt.

Mr. Barber's father, Rudolph (Rudy) Barber, was a World War II veteran who worked at Todd shipyards. Then he worked for Boeing for 35 years building airplanes. According to his son, when Rudy served on a troopship during the war he recalled sleeping in a bunk under asbestos-coated pipes which flaked so badly that he had to shake out his sleeping bag every morning.

A few years after retiring from Boeing, Rudy Barber started to develop breathing problems. First he was told by one doctor that his disease could be cured with surgery, but it wasn't. After undergoing surgery, another doctor diagnosed him with mesothelioma. After a year and a half of suffering and of enduring repeated radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Mr. Barber died on April 28, 2002. According to his family, he never complained and continued to help his family and neighbors with maintenance and farm work for as long as he could.

Karen Mirante's father, Fred Mirante, was a retired truck driver who was active in labor issues. While the source of Mr. Mirante's exposure to asbestos is unknown, it is likely that he breathed in asbestos from brakes when he worked on cars. After receiving experimental therapies for the disease and after a two and one-half year battle, he died on June 4, 2002. June 16, last Sunday, was the first Father's Day that Mr. Barber and Ms. Mirante had to spend without their cherished, hard-working dads.

I mention Bruce Vento, Admiral Zumwalt, Mr. Harvey, Mr. Barber and Mr. Mirante to demonstrate that asbestos disease strikes all different types of people in different professions who were exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives. Asbestos knows no boundaries. It is still in thousands of schools and buildings throughout the country, and is still being used in some consumer products.

I first became interested in this issue because, like most people, I thought asbestos had been banned. But in 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer starting running stories about a disturbing trend in the small mining town of Libby, Montana. Residents there suffer from high rates of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. These findings prompted Montana Senator Max Baucus to ask EPA to investigate. The agency found that the vermiculite mine near Libby, which operated from the 1920s until 1990, is full of tremolite asbestos. EPA is still working to clean up Libby, which is now a Superfund site.

Asbestos From Libby Was Shipped Around the Nation

W.R. Grace, the company which ran the mine, had evidence of the harmful health effects of its product, but did not warn workers, town residents or consumers. Instead, the product was shipped to over 300 sites nationally for processing and then was used to make products such as home insulation and soil additives. EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have determined that 22 sites are still contaminated today, including one in Spokane, Washington.

At many plants where vermiculite from Libby was processed, waste rock left over from the expansion process was given away for free, and people used it in their yards, drive ways and gardens. During its investigation into sites around the country which processed vermiculite from Libby, ATSDR discovered a picture taken of two darling little boys, Justin and Tim Jorgensen, climbing on waste rock given out by Western Minerals, Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota sometime in the late 1970s. According to W.R. Grace records, this rock contained between 2 and 10 percent tremolite asbestos. This rock produced airborne asbestos concentrations 135 times higher than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's current standard for workers. Thankfully, neither Justin nor Tim has shown any signs of disease, but their risks of developing asbestos diseases, which have latency periods of 15 to 40 years, are increased from their childhood exposures.

People may still today be exposing themselves to harmful amounts of asbestos in vermiculite. As many as 35 million homes and businesses may have insulation made with harmful minerals from Libby. And EPA has also tested agricultural products -- soil conditioners and fertilizers -- made with vermiculite, and determined that some workers may have been exposed to dangerous concentrations of tremolite asbestos.

As I learned more about Libby, and how asbestos has ended up in products by accident, I was shocked to learn that asbestos is still being used in products on purpose. While some specific uses have been banned, the EPA's more sweeping ban was never put into effect because of an asbestos industry backed lawsuit. As a result, new uses of asbestos were banned, but most existing ones were not.

Asbestos Is Still in Consumer Products

Asbestos is still used today to make roofing products, gaskets, brakes and other products. In 2001 the U.S. consumed 13,000 metric tons of it. Asbestos is still entering the product stream in this country, despite its known dangers to human health.

Other Countries Have Banned Asbestos

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. Now it is time for the United States to ban asbestos, too. According to EPA, 27 million Americans had significant exposure to the material on the job between 1940 and 1980. It is time for the sad legacy of asbestos disease we have witnessed during the 20th century to come to an end. I want to ensure our government does all it can to minimize future suffering and death caused by this substance.

Bill Summary

That is why today I am introducing the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002. The legislation has four main parts.

First and foremost, this bill protects public health by doing what the EPA tried to do 13 years ago: ban asbestos in the United States. The bill requires EPA to ban it by 2005. Like the regulations EPA finalized in 1989, companies may file for an exemption to the ban if there is no substitute material available: if there is no substitute material available and EPA determines the exemption won't pose an unreasonable risk of injury to public health or the environment.

Second, the bill requires EPA to conduct a pubic 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 vermiculite. I believe the government needs to warn people that their insulation, if made with vermiculite, may be contaminated with asbestos. Home owners and workers may be unknowingly exposing themselves to asbestos when they conduct routine maintenance near this insulation. While EPA has agreed to remove vermiculite insulation from homes in Libby, the agency currently has no plans to do this nation-wide.

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 bill directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services, working through the National Institutes of Health, to "expand, intensify and coordinate programs for the conduct and support of research on diseases caused by exposure to asbestos."

The Ban Asbestos in America Act requires the creation of a National Mesothelioma Registry to improve tracking of the disease. If there had been an asbestos disease tracking system in place, public health officials would have detected the health problems in Libby much sooner, and may have saved lives.

In addition, the bill authorizes funding for 7 mesothelioma treatment centers nationwide to improve treatments for and awareness of this fatal cancer.

As was the case with Mr. Harvey, who received treatment from the University of Washington, early detection and proper treatment make the difference between life and death. This bill authorizes $500,000 for each center for five years. This means more mesothelioma patients will receive treatments that can prolong their lives.

In response to the EPA Inspector General's report on Libby, Montana, EPA committed to create a Blue Ribbon Panel on asbestos and other durable fibers. However, because of insufficient resources, EPA has now narrowed the focus of the Panel to address issues surrounding only the six regulated forms of asbestos. The bill requires EPA to expand its Blue Ribbon Panel on Asbestos to address issues beyond those surrounding the six regulated forms of asbestos.

The Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002 expands the Blue Ribbon Panel's scope to include nonasbestiform asbestos and other durable fibers. The Panel shall include participation by the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In its response to the Inspector General, EPA was originally planning for the Panel to address implementation of and grant programs under Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, creation of a National Emissions Standard for Hazardous Pollutants under the Clean Air Act for contaminant asbestos, and other legislative and regulatory options for protecting public health.

The Administration also promised for the Panel to review the feasibility of establishing a durable fibers testing program within EPA, options to improve protections against exposure to asbestos in asbestos-containing products in buildings, and public education. The Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002 requires the Panel to address these subjects as EPA originally planned.

The legislation also requires the Panel to explore the need to establish across federal agencies a uniform asbestos standard and a protocol for detecting and measuring asbestos. Currently, asbestos is regulated under at least 11 statutes.

There are different standards within EPA and across federal agencies, and agencies rely on different protocols to detect and measure the substance. This has led to widespread confusion for the public -- for example, in 2000, there were reports that there was asbestos in crayons.

There has also been confusion surrounding asbestos exposure in New York City following the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. And in Libby, the EPA Inspector General's report cited split jurisdiction and multiple standards as one of the reasons EPA didn't do a better job of protecting the people of Libby from exposure to asbestos in the first place.

The Blue Ribbon Panel will also review the current state of the science on the human health effects of exposure to asbestos and other durable fibers, whether the current definition of asbestos containing material should be modified throughout the Code of Federal Regulations, and current research on and technologies for disposal of asbestos-containing products and contaminant asbestos products. The bill leaves up to the discretion of the Panel whether it will expand its scope to include manmade fibers, such as ceramic and carbon fibers. The Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations are due 2 years after enactment of the Act.

Our federal agencies need to do a better job of coordinating and working together on asbestos, which will mean less confusion for the public and improved protection for everyone.

The toll that asbestos has taken on people's lives in this country is staggering. And while Senators Baucus, Cantwell, Dayton, Wellstone and I continue to mourn the loss of Congressman Bruce Vento, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, more than 200 people from Libby and thousands of others, today our message is one of hope.

Our hope is that by continuing to work together, we will build support for the Ban Asbestos in America Act. If we can get this legislation passed, fewer people will be exposed to asbestos, fewer people will contract asbestos diseases in the first place, and those who already have asbestos diseases will receive treatments to prolong and improve quality of life. I urge my colleagues to support this important legislation.