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Murray, Senators, Doctors, and Victims Urge Congress to Protect Americans from Deadly Asbestos

Mar 25 2004

Senator Holds Press Conference with Victims of Asbestos-Related Illness, Medical Experts, Fellow Senators

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(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) joined with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn), two doctors, and dozens of asbestos victims and family members to urge Congress to improve the asbestos-liability bill that will be brought to the Senate floor next month.

For the past three years, Murray has led the effort in Congress to ban asbestos, increase public awareness, and improve research and treatment for patients with asbestos-related diseases. In May 2003, Murray proposed the Ban Asbestos in America Act, which would:

  • Ban asbestos in the United States,
  • Educate the public and workers about the risks of asbestos products,
  • Improve research and treatment for asbestos disease victims,
  • Expand EPA’s blue ribbon panel to better protect the public.

Last June, Murray succeeded in getting the ban portion of her act included in the Judiciary Committee’s liability bill. Today’s press conference is part of her effort to get all of her legislation’s provisions included in the pending bill. Murray also wants to make sure that the resulting bill gives victims the resources they need.

“I want the federal government to make a promise to those workers and to the asbestos victims here today that no one else will have to suffer from asbestos-related diseases. That is why – for any asbestos legislation to have a hope of passing the Senate – it must include all aspects of my Ban Asbestos in America Act,” Murray said.

Senator Dayton, one of Murray’s cosponsors on the legislation, said “I am astonished that, after all the documented human suffering caused from this deadly substance, asbestos has not been prohibited from our products, allowing it to end up in playgrounds and workplaces. Why, in heaven's name, are we not banning asbestos immediately, as dozens of other civilized countries have already done?”

Dr. Bret Williams, a victim of Mesothelioma, said, “Sadly, the asbestos bill before Congress would save industry many millions of dollars, but would not divert any of that windfall to research or prevention. Instead of solving a public health crisis, the thrust of pending legislation is simply to shield from liability the very corporations that poisoned me and legions of others.”

Dr. Harvey Pass, Head of Thoracic Oncology at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, spoke about progress doctors are making in treating asbestos related diseases and the long road ahead.

“The medical, legal, industrial, and governmental community must now join as a team to promote programs which will lessen the anxiety for individuals at high risk for asbestos- related cancers, by focusing on early detection, prevention strategies, and innovative treatments,” Dr. Pass said.

Senator Murray’s Remarks Follow:

Thank you all for being here today.

I am pleased to be joined by Senators Harry Reid and Mark Dayton, cosponsors of my Ban Asbestos in America Act, Dr. Bret Williams and Dr. Harvey Pass along with a number of asbestos victims, their families, experts and advocates.

I know many of you have made real sacrifices and traveled great distances to be here this morning, including Brian Harvey who is here from Seattle and Sue Vento from Minnesota.

Thank you – could all of the victims and their families please stand up.

I would also like to thank Chris Hahn and the Mesolthelioma Applied Research Foundation for their invaluable input and support throughout the last three years.

We are all here for one reason -- to prevent more Americans from suffering from exposure to asbestos.

When Congress talks about asbestos legislation, we hear a lot of statistics and a lot of fancy legal terms. But too often, we don’t hear the real stories of people who are suffering every day because our government has failed to protect us from a deadly substance.

I’d like to share just one of these many stories with you today.

The photo to my right is from the late 1970s. It’s of Justin and Tim Jorgensen. The boys are shown climbing on waste rock from the Western Minerals plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This plant processed asbestos contaminated vermiculite from the W.R. Grace plant in Libby, Montana. The company knew when it bought the mine in 1963 that it was full of asbestos, but chose not to warn workers or their families. Justin and Tim’s grandparents lived across the street from the Western Minerals facility. The waste rock that Justin and Tim are climbing on contains up to 10 percent tremolite asbestos.

Last year I received an email message from Izzi Jorgensen, who is the mother of the two boys in this picture. I want to read it to you this morning:

“Please eliminate asbestos. Those two boys playing in the ‘free rock’ are my sons.

Justin and Tim’s father Harris Jorgensen suffered long and hard with asbestosis and lung cancer. He died June 22, 1991 at age 44. … At this time I wonder - Do my sons have to suffer also? It may be too late.”

I am here today to tell you that it is not too late to stop the suffering caused by asbestos in this country. But we need to do something today.

Like many Americans, I thought that asbestos had already been banned. But, while more than 30 countries have banned asbestos and protected their citizens, the United States still has not. Today, people across the country are still being exposed to harmful amounts of asbestos in vermiculite.

As many as 35 million homes, schools and businesses may have Zonolite insulation. This may be the case for up to 150,000 homes in my home state of Washington.

Contaminated material from the Libby mine was shipped to more than 300 sites around the country for processing. EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have determined that 22 sites are still contaminated today including one in Spokane, Washington.

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. In fact, in 2002 the U.S. imported $125 million worth of brake linings with asbestos! Asbestos is still used in products like gaskets, roofing supplies and brakes.

It is unconscionable that so many innocent victims have died because they were exposed to a product that they were told was safe. But it is even more disturbing that our government continues to allow asbestos to be imported into this country and used in everyday products today.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration an estimated 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry still face significant asbestos exposure on the job. Let me say that again – 1.3 million employees are still being exposed to asbestos on the job.

I want the federal government to make a promise to those workers and to the asbestos victims here today that no one else will have to suffer from asbestos-related diseases. That is why -- for any asbestos legislation to have a hope of passing the Senate -- it must include all aspects of my Ban Asbestos in America Act.

My legislation does four things. First, the bill protects the public by requiring the EPA to ban asbestos within two years – I am grateful Senator Hatch has included the ban in his asbestos litigation reform bill.

Second, the bill requires EPA to conduct a public education campaign about the risks of asbestos products. We need to warn people that products in their homes and in their workplaces may still contain asbestos. The legislation also requires EPA to conduct a survey to determine which foreign and domestic products consumed in the U.S. today have been made with asbestos. EPA has estimated that at one time, as many as 3,000 products were made with asbestos.

Third, the legislation invests in research, tracking and treatment of asbestos diseases. It requires the creation of a registry to track Mesothelioma. It also authorizes funding for 10 treatment centers nationwide to improve treatments for and awareness of this fatal cancer.

Finally, the bill calls for the National Academy of Sciences, along with the EPA’s Blue Ribbon Panel, to study issues beyond the six regulated forms of asbestos.

Over the years, asbestos has taken a staggering toll. According to a recent report issued by the Environmental Working Group, some 43,000 thousand Americans have died from exposure to asbestos over the last twenty years – and millions more remain at risk.

I hope that by continuing to work together – we will build additional support for the all of the critical components of the Ban Asbestos in America Act – so that future generations will not just think that asbestos has been banned, but they can be sure of it. It is time to end the suffering from this deadly substance.