Panel urges U.S. to ban asbestos imports
By Andrew Schneider, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 3, 2003
WASHINGTON - A blue-ribbon panel funded by the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a surprising recommendation calling on Congress to ban the import, production and distribution of products containing asbestos.
The deadly mineral is no longer mined in the United States, yet the government says about 30 millions pounds of the lethal fibers are being imported into the country each year.
The findings come as a shock to some of those who have long advocated a ban because so many of the panel's members have ties to industries involved with asbestos. That gives the panel's recommendations extraordinary weight, those involved with the asbestos issue say, and could aid efforts already under way in the Senate to outlaw the importation of the deadly fibers.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which tracks the import and export of minerals, says an additional "untold millions" of pounds of asbestos material crosses U.S. borders unlabeled and mixed with other products.
The order for the creation of the panel came last year from the EPA's inspector general. The office had been investigating the agency's failure to take action over 20 years in dealing with the asbestos contamination of miners and their families in the tiny town of Libby, Mont. Hundreds of people had died and thousands were sickened from asbestos-related disease caused by inhalation of tremolite fibers that contaminated a now-closed vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co.
As early as 1982, the EPA had documented the dangers of the tainted vermiculite and showed that it constituted a significant health risk not only to the miners and residents of Libby, but to hundreds of communities throughout the country where the vermiculite was shipped and processed into home insulation and other products. The agency did nothing with the information.
The inspector general said a panel from the asbestos industry, government
and environmental, labor, academic and medical experts should be assembled
and review the government's handling of the toxic fibers. It gave a $200,000
contract to Global Environment & Technology to gather and present
"It is surprising that a ban was recommended, and its importance cannot be overstated," said J. Brent Kynoch, managing director of Environmental Information Association, which represents environmental industry professionals. "The recommendations have major significance because the EPA funded the collection of information," said Kynoch, who participated in the meetings.
The 71-page document recommends a ban that is almost identical to that introduced in June by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray was strident in her efforts to educate her colleagues on the prevalence of asbestos throughout the country.
Asbestos is a killer. The fibers, which can only be seen through a microscope, can be inhaled into the lungs, where they are deeply embedded into the tissue or impaled into the lining of the lungs or abdomen. There, the fibers fester and scar, eventually making the lungs uselessly rigid. Cancerous tumors can also fill lungs with mustard-yellow fluid, the consistency of honey, until the vital organs can no longer absorb life-sustaining oxygen.
Murray said Friday that she applauds the action of the EPA-sponsored panel.
"This report reinforces two things I have been saying for a long time. First, asbestos is still a serious problem in this country. Second, Congress needs to pass the Ban Asbestos in America Act now.
"This report makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to oppose this needed legislation."
No action was taken on Murray's bill in the last session, but the senator says she plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next several weeks.
EPA consultants questioned 53 authorities from various private, industry and government organizations. In October, 37 of these experts met to hammer out the recommendations. In addition to the ban, the panel recommended increased education of asbestos risks, handling, sampling and testing methods, and the reduction of unintended asbestos in products and the development of a national mesothelioma registry. Mesothelioma is an almost always fatal, quick-killing cancer of the thin linings of major organs. It is caused by asbestos exposure.
One of the more obvious and easily implemented recommendations was that government agencies enforce existing asbestos regulations. It recommends that the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and state regulators "focus on more stringent, predictable and consistent enforcement" of laws and regulations already on the books.
The need for stiffer enforcement by all government agencies is well-documented by research conducted by public interest groups and congressional investigators.
For example, in November 2000, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer collected and analyzed samples of dust from 31 brake-repair garages across the country. Dangerous levels of asbestos were detected in 21 of the locations. Public health experts said the exposure levels were so high in some locations that more than one in 10 mechanics working without protective gear would likely contract cancer.
Yet OSHA headquarters did nothing, even though many of its regional inspectors said they were frustrated by their agency's cavalier attitude to worker safety.
The Seattle newspaper also tested replacement brakes purchased at dozens of parts stores and found that most contained asbestos, even though the boxes were marked "asbestos free."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said at the time that there was nothing it could do about it.
Naturally occurring asbestos
The ban, as proposed, targets products with asbestos intentionally added, but the report repeatedly discusses the proven danger of products containing naturally occurring asbestos, such as the tremolite and actinolite fibers found in Libby.
"Incidences of asbestos contamination in talc, vermiculite, play sand, crayons and art supplies have arisen," the report said.
Crayola and two other major crayon manufacturers removed asbestos-containing talc from their products two years ago after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported finding trace amounts of asbestos in dozens of crayons it tested.
But little attention was paid to the health of workers at the talc mine in upstate New York where the fine white powder is mined. The company, in Gouverneur, insists there is no danger.
But in the small mining villages of Talcville and Balmat, scores of old miners can be found sucking oxygen from tanks to keep their asbestos-encrusted lungs from failing.
The same scenes can be found in the Iron Range of Minnesota and Michigan, where hundreds of taconite miners, railroaders and barge crews have died or been sickened by asbestos-caused illnesses.
The Mining Safety and Health Administration, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, said it was "appalled" that its agency knew 45 years ago that the miners at Libby were in grave danger and did nothing. The then-administrator, Davitt McAteer, promised "it will never happen again," and started an intensive inspection program of all talc and taconite mines and the nation's three remaining vermiculite operations. The agency's efforts stalled after Clinton left office.
The contamination problems become even more complex for government regulators, the panel said, when you're dealing with naturally occurring asbestos in the soil. The panel raised the issue of California, where, it said, 20 percent of the soil contains high levels of tremolite. Chris Bowman of the Sacramento Bee has been reporting for years on schools and large residential areas being built on ground heavily contaminated with tremolite, which investigators working in Libby have shown to be more toxic than other asbestos fibers.
Science must catch up
Most agencies have worked under the assumption that products that contained less than 1 percent asbestos were not harmful and need not be regulated.
"Products with less than 1 percent can also be dangerous if in handling the product there is a significant fiber release," the report said. This was confirmed by three years of extensive testing of products produced with the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the W.R. Grace mine in Libby.
Tests by the EPA, the Canadian government, private scientists and Grace itself have repeatedly documented that the insulation, believed to be in the attics and wall of as many as 35 million homes, immediately generated dangerously high levels of exposure when even gently disturbed.
The EPA's long-awaited notifications to homeowners of the dangers of the Zonolite vermiculite insulation is now expected within two weeks, the agency says.
The EPA has declined to talk publicly about its reactions to the panel's recommendation. But when it comes to banning asbestos the agency has a right to be somewhat gun-shy.
In 1989, after years of research, the EPA announced a ban of most asbestos-containing products. But in 1991, the agency was sued by American and Canadian asbestos interests, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned most of the ban.
The EPA urged that the court's decision be appealed, but the White House of President George Bush refused to allow its Justice Department to go against the asbestos industry.
In a statement Friday, the agency said, "EPA is still reviewing the draft report and has made no specific determinations on any of the recommendations included in the report."
Thirty-one countries have already banned asbestos on the grounds that there is no safe exposure level.
"The ban in the United States is long overdue," said Barry Castleman, a nationally recognized authority in asbestos issues and a former science adviser to the European Commission on matters involving the ban.
"The political pressure from some industries to fight an asbestos ban has been enormous, but this report is the clearest signal possible that Sen. Murray's legislation must be passed and implemented as soon as possible," said Castleman, who participated in the EPA-funded panel.
"The ban will be good for American businesses and their workers," he said. "No longer will American manufacturers have to compete with asbestos products from China and other countries where workers are not protected from the killer fibers."
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