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Despite over 100 years of evidence proving that asbestos is a cause of cancer, the United States has still not issued a ban on the deadly mineral fiber. The EPA banned asbestos once before, in 1989, but the ban was overturned by powerful industry lobbyists. Why is this unassuming fiber so appealing that businessmen and politicians are willing to lose thousands of Americans every year to keep it in circulation?

t least 30 Americans per day or 11,000 per year die from asbestos-related diseases, yet U.S. politicians have been unable to get rid of the mineral fiber. Multi-billion dollar companies like those in the chlorine-alkali industry use asbestos because it’s cheap and effective. Business tycoons don’t want to spend more money researching and buying alternative products, so they oppose legislation that bans or restricts asbestos. And perhaps Washington DC has become so used to this cycle of corporate greed that it hesitates to lift a finger.

Historically, new bills designed to reform the country’s chemical laws are slow to move and fought every step of the way by lobbyists for asbestos-related industries. Any amount of positive change, no matter how small, will take persistent action, not just from environmental groups and worker advocates, but from working-class citizens, victims, and families across the country.

30/Day 11,000/Year

Why Is the U.S. Behind the Curve?

At least 57 other countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos, including many countries in the European Union, Eastern Europe, and industrial nations in the Middle East and Asia, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Japan. Many of the countries on the list represent developed nations and all of them have fewer resources than the U.S. to create technical alternatives to asbestos. Despite considerable challenges, poorer, less-influential countries are able to prioritize human life over profits.
Asbestos Kills Map

The lack of asbestos-industry regulation in the United States has a devastating impact on its citizens. To put this into perspective, an estimated American death toll due to asbestos-related diseases for the past 30 years is somewhere between 330,000 to 450,000 people. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Miami, Florida dying in only 3 decades.

Countries that have banned asbestos include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Japan.As a global leader that often criticizes other nations for human rights violations, the United States must hold itself to a higher standard than this. The U.S. with its huge influence over trade negotiations, its money, and its access to cutting-edge technology should be leading the world in worker safety rather than lagging behind tiny nations with half the budget and resources. This begs the question: What rules does the U.S. have in place and why doesn’t the government choose the safer option of banning asbestos instead of merely restricting it?

Estimated U.S. Death Toll

The State of Asbestos Regulations

In the past 30 years, the U.S. has cut its asbestos usage dramatically from 850,000 metric tons down to only 1,000 metric tons per year, or a little over 2 million pounds. To put this in perspective, 2 million pounds is roughly equal to the weight of 500 cars or small trucks. Reducing asbestos usage is only bittersweet because it causes the U.S. to do business with foreign asbestos-related corporations in Brazil, China, and Russia. U.S. dollars are thus spent funding an international asbestos industry that is more concerned about opening up new markets in developing countries than it is about human health and suffering.
Asbest, RussiaInternational health experts predict that increased asbestos production in developing nations will lead to a cumulative global death toll of 10 million people by 2030. Russia, the world’s single largest producer of asbestos, already loses about 11,000 people a year in the process of mining. One of its largest mines was infamously nicknamed “the dying city” due to the sheer numbers of lung cancer and mesothelioma cases it experienced. Residents of this city, which is aptly named Asbest, report asbestos dust blows around through the city like sand, collecting on their carpets and belongings. One elderly lady commented, tragically, “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries.”
In the face of these monumental health risks, American legislators have been unable to deny the effects of asbestos exposure any longer. Since 1900, medical professionals have been publishing studies that prove asbestos is carcinogenic, but at the same time, large asbestos-industry corporations such as Johns-Manville, have been deliberately covering that evidence up by falsifying documents and lying to their workers.

Other companies like Georgia-Pacific (a subsidiary of the corporate giant, Koch Industries) was caught paying scientists $6 million dollars to produce false conclusions that suggested asbestos was harmless. Koch Industries provides an excellent and chilling example of how big corporations can oppose legislation that’s in the best interest of the public’s health. A recent study pointed out that Koch Industries spent “$20.5 million over the [two] years to influence federal policy, as the company’s lobbyists and officials sought to mold, gut, or kill more than 100 prospective bills or regulations.” These organizations influence public policy by essentially bribing government officials.

“If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.” It is a commonly accepted fact that just about every corporation that used asbestos in its manufacturing knew, since the early 1900s, that it was killing its workers, but said nothing. Such deceit became so bad that a company lawyer at Johns Manville advised an executive that he could be tried for manslaughter if the public knew how many people his lies had killed. Despite the mounting evidence and the potential consequences, executive officers at asbestos-industry corporations have been consistently cold-hearted in their lack of regard for asbestos victims. An executive at the Bendix Corporation even wrote in a company memo: “If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.”
$25 Million to Change or Kill Bills

How Much Sway Do Lobbyists Hold Over U.S. Lawmakers?

Though the high, human cost of asbestos use is well documented in the United States, lobbyists for the industry manage to convince Congress that asbestos is essential. Since lobbyists wield so much influence, they are able to pressure Congress to alter laws in their favor. A perfect example of this is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, the largest and most important law related to the regulation of harmful chemicals, and a nearly complete failure of the U.S. government to check the greed of corporations using asbestos.

HandshakeTSCA was designed to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to investigate the ingredients of chemical compounds and determine their risk to human health and the environment. However, because asbestos has been around since before the law went into effect, the EPA was required to both prove that asbestos presented an “unreasonable risk” and then, to use “the least burdensome” methods possible to reduce chemical risks while not interfering with commerce and the economy.
Unfortunately, it’s all too clear: This “least burdensome” aspect of the law serves to protect corporations instead of citizens. TSCA didn’t give the government enough power or resources to enforce strict standards. The EPA simply can’t afford to test all of the chemicals used by industries in the U.S. Instead it relies on the companies themselves to test their own chemicals and even then, only in the event that the company suspects a chemical is dangerous. Obviously, people who run businesses that knowingly profit from the use of toxic substances in the first place are not the sort to turn themselves in and reform.
TSCA was nearly a complete failure

Why Not Ban Asbestos?

The United States actually did, very briefly, ban almost all asbestos products in 1989. This law was overturned in 1991 as a result of the lawsuit Corrosion Proof Fittings v. the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the main reasons for the change of rules was a pre-existing trade agreement between Canada and the U.S. An asbestos ban would have meant a lot of lost money and jobs for asbestos mines in Canada and asbestos-product manufacturers in the United States. Although the asbestos-industry executives won the case, at no point did anybody argue the fact that asbestos causes cancer.

Since the regulations are loose and ill-defined, companies can deceive the public by claiming a product contains “rictile” or “chrysotile” (specific forms of asbestos), rather than using these products’ more well-known name. The current laws in the United States ban certain construction materials, but there are at least 3,600 asbestos-containing products, available in department and hardware stores that don’t list asbestos as an ingredient.

At least 3,600 asbestos-containing products are available in department and hardware stores… Some of the most common asbestos-containing products are roofing materials, automobile brake discs and clutches, and vinyl tile. This suggests that if you live in a house and drive (or ride in) a car, you are, at the very least in proximity to asbestos on a daily basis. And these items only account for the products that are still legal and in production — they don’t even begin to touch on the nearly uncountable number of items still being used today that were produced in the 70s and 80s. These older asbestos-containing products are even less stable and more likely to release toxic particles into the air.

Hardware stores still carry asbestos products

Can We Survive without Asbestos?

As of 2012, more than half of the country’s asbestos imports are used by the chlorine-alkali industry, which makes chlorine products and inorganic compounds like sodium hydroxide. The chlorine-alkali industry argues that asbestos is essential to constructing filters and diaphragms that aid in production. But this isn’t the entire truth.

Lobbyists for Koch and DOW Chemical are essentially able to buy government support.A 2007 study conducted by a civil engineer in the European Union states that there are now alternatives to asbestos-based filters in the production of chlorine. The author writes that the hesitance to remove asbestos in Europe is “bound to economic interests involved in the removal of asbestos in [industrial] plants and to the strong and powerful lobby made up of producers….” This is the same problem faced in the U.S., as lobbyists for Koch Industries and Dow Chemical are essentially able to buy government support with millions of dollars of donations.
Hardware stores still carry asbestos products

Moving forward with TSCA Reform

Current attempts at TSCA reform are already tainted by lobbyist money. The Center for Responsive Politics has reported that many large chemical companies including Dow, Koch Industries, 3M, and Honeywell, among others, spent a staggering $69 Million lobbying for influence on the Udall-Vitter Reform Bill. The Udall-Vitter Bill offers some improvements on the original TSCA, but it doesn’t have a specific asbestos provision and it doesn’t give individual states as much power to ban and regulate chemicals. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) received roughly $70,000 in campaign contributions from the chemical industry and Senator David Vitter (R-LA) received about $34,000.

The Udall-Vitter bill will guarantee that the EPA spends money to protect pregnant women, children, and workers. There is another competing chemical reform bill called the Boxer-Markey Bill. It hasn’t received as much support and has, unfortunately, been all but disregarded in Washington. The Boxer-Markey bill was in favor of asbestos victims and had a special provision to more easily regulate, remove, and ban asbestos. Recently, senator Markey (D-MA) agreed to abandon his own bill and support the Udall-Vitter bill so long as he could make amendments. Those amendments were negotiated on and the new, amended Udall-Vitter bill will make it slightly easier for states to keep their own, individual regulations and it will guarantee that the EPA spends money on protecting pregnant women, children, and workers.

What these reform bills reveal is that mega corporations like Koch Industries, Honeywell, 3M, and Dow are still influential enough to block Congress from passing a comprehensive bill that protects working families.

$69 million spent on lobbying

Getting Worse Before Getting Better

It is undeniably better to have slow progress than no progress at all, but as Congress struggles to put forth a reform bill, asbestos-related diseases are killing people in record numbers. There is no state in the entire U.S. that hasn’t experienced deaths from mesothelioma and asbestosis. Victim advocacy groups project that America will lose another 100,000 people in the upcoming decade, most of them men.

Health organizations and action groups around the world predict that right now is the peak time for asbestos-related deaths and that those death rates will stay high until at least 2050. The reason for this is that mesothelioma takes 20-50 years on average to be diagnosed in a patient. The danger of asbestos is that it is not a threat we can see clearly and in the moment. An asbestos hazard in 2015 means thousands of deaths stretched out over the next several decades.

Asbestos Related Deaths Per Year

Asbestos is an indiscriminate killer and reform is much needed but hard to affect – big asbestos-industry corporations have billions of dollars and decades-old trade agreements on their side. The great and unfortunate irony here is that American politics have themselves become too much like a product – laws are bought and sold on the free market by corporations who will do absolutely anything to fatten their wallets. For the thousands of families who live and die by asbestos-reform laws, it’s time for that product to be recalled and fixed.

100,000 lives will be lost in the next decade