On Thursday, July 10, the U.S. Capitol Building was forced to temporarily quarantine the House side because of an “asbestos-related incident.” I can imagine the shock and fear of members of Congress, their staff, and building 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.
Although many people—perhaps even members of Congress—mistakenly believe that asbestos is a declining threat, Thursday’s asbestos emergency should serve as a sobering reminder that this man-made disaster continues to plague unsuspecting Americans, and immediate Congressional action is necessary 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 always fatal, the available surgical treatments amounted to nothing more than death by one-thousand cuts, all in the hope for more time with us. My daughter and I were forced to watch Alan whither from a vibrant man to a frail patient gasping for air.
The asbestos industry and the government have known for more than 100 years that asbestos can cause 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 2013 alone, the United States consumed 950 metric tons of asbestos. The reason? To meet “manufacturing needs” —even when safer substitutes exist.
Today’s construction workers and fire fighters are twice as likely to die from asbestos diseases as the rest of the population, and an alarming number of younger victims are developing asbestos-related diseases through “secondary exposure” —which is exposure to asbestos through contact with someone who carried the toxic particles away from the original site.
More than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases, and that number will not drop without meaningful legislation. Despite this, the toxin is still legal—and lethal—in the United States thanks to Congressional inaction, willful blindness, and corporate malfeasance.
In February, both chambers of Congress unveiled legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), which governs the use of asbestos. Unfortunately, instead of banning known killers like asbestos, these bills as drafted do nothing to protect the public from toxic substances and even weaken and eliminate existing safety measures. What’s worse, this legislation essentially immunizes asbestos corporations by abolishing victims’ ability to hold the wrongdoer accountable in court.
Adding insult to injury, the House of Representatives also passed a bill backed by the asbestos industry that will further erode asbestos victims’ ability to hold corporations accountable for knowingly poisoning Americans—many of whom are veterans. The so-called FACT Act (H.R. 982 / S.2319) will place new burdens on asbestos trusts—which exist solely for the purpose of compensating present and future victims of asbestos diseases—by allowing companies to waste trust assets, delay recovery, and deny compensation for victims. This bill would also violate the privacy of victims by requiring trusts to publicly release extensive information about asbestos victims.
It is offensive that the same corporations that hid the dangers of asbestos for decades and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths are now trying to evade accountability by accusing their victims and the victims’ families of ‘fraud,’ while also begging lawmakers to allow them to continue poisoning Americans by weakening environmental safeguards.
There is no cure for asbestos diseases, but there is hope. In addition to opposing the FACT Act, Congress must act to ban asbestos once and for all. In honor of Alan and every asbestos warrior’s brave battle with these horrific diseases, I urge Congress to finally pass meaningful TSCA reform that will keep Americans free from toxic substances, and to respect the dignity of present and, sadly, the inevitable future victims of asbestos.
Reinstein is co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.