By Heather White Most Americans think asbestos was outlawed decades ago. That’s wrong. Asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S. and since the 1980s its use has sharply declined, but it is still legal – and still lethal.
Under a weak and outdated federal toxics law, the Environmental Protection Agency has been able to ban asbestos in fewer than a dozen categories of products, as well as for new uses. Globally, 55 nations have banned asbestos, but the U.S. still allows the importation and use of this deadly substance, for which there is no safe level of exposure.
Based on mortality records of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die each year from diseases triggered by inhalation of asbestos fibers, primarily mesothelioma, an incurable malignancy that attacks the protective lining of internal organs; asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that makes breathing excruciatingly painful; and lung cancer.
Instead of taking action to protect Americans from this killer, Congress is considering a bill that would delay, decrease or deny compensation to victims and their families, and put them at heightened risk of identity theft. The so-called FACT Act, H.R. 526, filed by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, would raise needless bureaucratic roadblocks for people who file asbestos compensation claims, making it harder for them to receive justice in court. Because most mesothelioma patients survive only months after diagnosis, victims could well die before they can collect any money for medical care or to support for their loved ones after they’re gone.
Farenthold’s bill was approved by the Judiciary Committee in May and is expected to reach the House floor this fall. It would require that the private trusts that companies with asbestos liability have established to compensate victims issue costly quarterly reports, which would deplete the trusts’ already dwindling assets. It would also allow the companies to make excessive demands for information and create unnecessary paperwork, further driving up the trusts’ expenses. Adding insult to injury, the bill would also violate victims’ privacy by releasing personally-identifiable information, including their names, birthplace, work history and a portion of their Social Security numbers, on a public website, exposing them to scammers and identity thieves.
Corporations whose workplaces or products exposed millions of Americans to asbestos are backing the bill, which could save some of them billions of dollars. Internal documents, uncovered through victims’ lawsuits, have shown that manufacturers knew by the 1930s that asbestos was deadly. But they and their insurers hid the facts, callously continuing to expose workers and their families. Although a disproportionate number of asbestos victims are veterans and firefighters, for some victims the only exposure came from a “deadly hug” with a family member whose clothing carried the fibers.
Asbestos interests say the bill is needed because victims are committing fraud by filing multiple claims and driving companies into bankruptcy. But most asbestos victims were exposed multiple times by different corporations and should have the right to receive compensation from every firm that harmed them. What’s more, the bankruptcy code protects corporations by allowing them to establish the compensation trusts for asbestos liability while continuing to profit from other areas of their business.
Congress should act to keep Americans safe from asbestos, not to protect corporations that knowingly put workers and consumers in danger. Companies trying to evade their responsibilities to asbestos victims and put them at increased risk of identity theft should be ashamed, and so should any member of Congress who votes for Farenthold’s bill.
Heather White is the executive director of EWG and the EWG Action Fund.