Lawmakers Have Renewed the Effort to Ban Asbestos
by Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory
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Series: Toxic Burden
How American Chemical Regulations Failed the Public
Citing ProPublica’s reporting, lawmakers on Thursday reintroduced a bill that would ban the use of asbestos in the United States, bringing it in line with dozens of countries that have outlawed the carcinogenic substance.
Even though asbestos is known to cause deadly diseases, the U.S. still allows companies to import hundreds of tons of the raw mineral. It is primarily used by two chemical manufacturers, OxyChem and Olin Corp., in the production of chlorine. The legislation, called the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2023, would ban the import and use of all six types of asbestos fibers. It would give OxyChem and Olin two years to transition its asbestos-dependent chlorine plants to newer, asbestos-free technology.
The chemical industry has long argued against a ban in the U.S. by saying employees are protected by strict safety protocols. Last year, however, ProPublica found that workers were repeatedly exposed to asbestos in some of the plants. In one OxyChem plant in Niagara Falls, New York, former workers said asbestos floated in the air and accumulated in corners and on top of machines. At an Olin plant in Alabama, a longtime janitor said she was tasked with scraping up dry asbestos but wasn’t given protective gear, even while pregnant. (OxyChem said the workers’ accounts in Niagara Falls were inaccurate but would not specify which details were incorrect. Olin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“ProPublica’s recent reporting on the devastating damage of this deadly substance has underscored the need for urgent action,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and we have seen that we cannot rely on industry to put the safety of workers first.”
In a press release, Sen. Jeff Merkley, another Democrat from Oregon and the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, also cited ProPublica’s reporting as a reason the ban is necessary.
“Any expert will tell you there simply is no level of exposure to asbestos that is safe for the human body,” Merkley said in the release. “We’ve known for generations that asbestos is lethal, yet the U.S. has continued to allow some industries to value profits over people.”
The bill is named after Alan Reinstein, a man who died in 2006 from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. His wife, Linda Reinstein, has long advocated for an asbestos ban in the U.S. and co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a nonprofit that works to protect the public from the dangers of the substance.
“This long overdue legislation will protect all Americans — especially vulnerable workers, disadvantaged communities, consumers, first responders, and children — who are most at-risk from being exposed to this deadly carcinogen,” Reinstein said in a statement on Thursday.
Merkley and Bonamici have tried to pass similar legislation before, but they have not been successful. The bill they proposed last year had a hearing in a Senate subcommittee and five co-sponsors in the House, but it ultimately stalled.
At the Senate hearing, industry representatives pushed back on efforts to outlaw asbestos, saying an all-out ban would be too onerous for the chemical companies. They cautioned that a prohibition could threaten the supply of chlorine in the U.S., some of which is used to clean drinking water.
OxyChem and Olin did not respond to requests from ProPublica for comment on the latest bill. The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, did not respond to ProPublica, either.
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is working on its own asbestos ban. The agency proposed a rule last year that would ban only chrysotile asbestos, the most commonly used type and the one that is used in chlorine plants. The EPA has missed some legislative deadlines to enact the ban but says it will finalize the regulation by October.
Two weeks ago, the EPA invited the public to weigh in on new information the agency received about the proposed asbestos ban, including ProPublica’s reports about workplace safety.
Some advocates worry the EPA’s ban will be further delayed or be overturned in court. They point to the EPA’s failed attempt to enact an asbestos ban in 1989, which was overturned by a federal judge after companies sued the agency.
“We can’t afford to wait any longer,” said Reinstein, who believes legislation will be the most effective way to stop asbestos use. “The cost of inaction and the lives we know will be lost is far too great of a price to pay.”
Merkley and Bonamici’s bill is also endorsed by several other public health groups, including the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Public Health Association.