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Asbestos Scare in Cannon Is a Reminder of Congress’ Failure to Act | Commentary

By Linda Reinstein On Oct.30, the Cannon House Office Building was evacuated for a potential asbestos leak and closed until further notice. The Architect of the Capitol confirmed that the potential release of asbestos occurred during construction as part of the Cannon Renewal Project. I can imagine the shock and fear of members of Congress, their staff, and AOC employees upon learning that this invisible killer had surrounded them in their workplace. Ironically, many of these same members of Congress have repeatedly opposed efforts to ban asbestos and ushered through legislation that would let the asbestos industry off the hook for the deaths and disease caused by this substance.  

Don’t be fooled; Oct. 30 was not the first time asbestos has plagued Congress. In July 2014, an asbestos incident occurred during asbestos abatement work temporarily closed the House side of the Capitol.  

Although many people — perhaps even Congress — mistakenly believe asbestos is a declining threat, the recent asbestos closure should serve as a sobering reminder that this man-made disaster continues to plague unsuspecting Americans, and deserves immediate congressional action to protect the public. Like many families, mine was blissfully ignorant about asbestos diseases, wrongly assuming that if the government did not limit or ban a substance, it must be safe. Then in 2003, my husband Alan was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Because this cancer is almost always fatal, the available surgical treatments amounted to nothing more than death by one thousand cuts, all in hopes for more time with us. My daughter and I were forced to watch Alan whither from a vibrant man to a frail asbestos victim gasping for air.  

Since Alan was diagnosed, countless bills to ban asbestos have been introduced, but all have failed. What’s worse, the asbestos industry has been able to bamboozle Congress to draft legislation that reduces liability, accountability and transparency with the so-called Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act — and that's only part of the harrowing story.  

The asbestos industry has known for more than 100 years that asbestos causes mesothelioma and other lung, gastrointestinal, laryngeal and ovarian cancers, as well as non-malignant lung and respiratory diseases. However, since 1900, more than 31 million metric tons of asbestos have been used in buildings and consumer products, and can still be found in our homes, schools, workplaces and even the toys our children play with. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that in 2015 alone, the United States consumed 400 metric tons of asbestos. The reason? To meet “manufacturing needs” — even when safer substitutes exist.  

Congressional inaction leaves Americans at risk in homes, schools, and workplaces throughout the nation as up to 15,000 people die yearly from preventable asbestos-caused diseases.  

In 2013, the recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of three cohorts in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia gave us new data. As reported, “The population of firefighters in the study had a rate of mesothelioma two times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole.”  

But there’s more. The Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factor Study from the prestigious Lancet medical journal, found occupational asbestos exposure to be responsible for 194,000 deaths in 2013. The new numbers represent a more than 80 percent increase from the 107,000 per annum statistic from the World Health Organization. Despite this, the toxin is still legal — and lethal — in the United States thanks to congressional inaction, willful blindness, and corporate malfeasance.  

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 provided the Environmental Protection Agency with the authority to require reporting, record keeping and testing along with restrictions related to chemical substances and/or mixtures. In 1989, the EPA issued a final rule under Section 6 of TSCA banning most asbestos-containing products. However, in 1991, this rule was vacated and remanded by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, most of the original bans on the manufacture, importation, processing, or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered in the 1989 final rule were overturned.  

While the Senate and House continue efforts to reform TSCA, neither the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S 697) nor the House of Representatives TSCA Modernization Act (HR 2576) provide for expedited action for asbestos.  

The time is now to empower and ensure the EPA can finally ban asbestos and end the deadly asbestos man-made disaster.  

Linda Reinstein is co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Related: Cannon Reopens After Asbestos Scare See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: guest-observer