U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced legislation in Congress this week that would effectively ban all use of asbestos.
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2017 is the sixth legislative attempt to ban the toxic substance in the last 20 years. All previous bills failed to gain enough support.
While the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) already includes asbestos on its top ten chemicals for risk review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Merkley’s legislation could speed the process considerably.
According to Merkley’s congressional office, the legislation would:
“It’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the developed world and ban this dangerous public health threat once and for all,” according to Merkley’s statement released by his office last week. “It’s outrageous that in the year 2017, asbestos is still allowed in the United States.”
Asbestos is the toxic, naturally occurring mineral that once was coveted for its tensile strength, flexibility and heat resistance, used extensively in construction and manufacturing.
Asbestos is strictly regulated today, and its use has dropped significantly in recent decades, but it remains a threat in commercial and residential construction projects built before 1980.
According to the United States Geological Survey, 340 tons of raw asbestos were imported in 2016 and all of it was used by the chloralkali industry to manufacture semipermeable diaphragms.
By comparison, an all-time high of 801,000 tons were consumed in the U.S. in 1973, prior to legislation restricting its use.
In addition to raw asbestos, an unknown amount of already manufactured products, such as roofing and automotive supplies, are still getting imported today.
The U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission lists the total imports in 2016 at 705 tons.
More than 60 countries have totally banned asbestos, although the U.S. has not. Developing countries are the primary users of asbestos.
“There is no excuse that asbestos is still legal in the United States, even though we know how unsafe it is,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the seven co-sponsors of Merkley’s legislation. “Breathing clean air shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s a right.”
Exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to a number of serious health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer. An estimated 10,000 people die annually from some form of asbestos disease.
“Asbestos is a killer. The evidence is clear,” said thoracic surgeon Dr. Raja Flores, a mesothelioma specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “This is a life-saving bill. It can save more lives than I can with my knife.”
The proposed legislation will face several hurdles before a ban could be enacted.
It must first go through various committees in the U.S. Senate before moving to the U.S. House of Representatives and the president.
Merkley’s co-sponsors also are all Democrats in a deeply-divided Senate controlled by a Republican majority.
The state of Montana, which has been devastated by the asbestos disaster in Libby, might be a good example of obstacles the bill will face in the Senate.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. While Republican Sen. Steve Daines was intensely lobbied, the Montana legislator declined to support it, preferring to wait for the EPA’s regulatory review.
“Asbestos has taken the lives of too many Montanans, and banning this harmful substance will prevent future loss of life,” Tester told the Montana Standard. “Just ask the families in Libby. There’s no place for asbestos in our communities.”
Although Merkley said he will work to get Republicans to support it, he has been a divider in the past. Earlier this year, he tried unsuccessfully to block the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch by staging a doomed 15-hour filibuster.