At Last, an Asbestos Ban

At long last, lawmakers are poised to ban asbestos: Last week, the Senate passed long-awaited legislation prohibiting the use of the toxic material anywhere in the US. The news is a personal triumph for Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who fought for seven years to push the ban through in the face of apathy from her colleagues and tough opposition from the White House. The surprising thing, though, is less Murray’s tenacity, and more the fact that it’s taken this long to ban such a dangerous substance.

It’s now 40 years since the dangers of asbestos became apparent. Each year, some 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-related diseases. The mineral’s microscopic fibers cause cancers of the lungs’ lining and other crippling and incurable diseases. Despite these frightening statistics, asbestos is still present in more than 3,000 imported products ranging from auto brakes to hair driers, and US companies use over 2,500 tons of the substance every year.

That’s better than the 800,000 tons consumed during the 1970s, but hardly reassuring for a substance to which the World Health Organization (WHO) says there’s no safe level of exposure.

Murray’s Senate bill aims to shut down asbestos once and for all, preventing the import or distribution of products containing the substance. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be mandated to publicize the ban and ensure that all asbestos-tainted products are off the shelves within two years.

Therein, perhaps, lies the rub: The EPA’s enforcement team has become increasingly anemic, and the agency has a terrible track record in managing asbestos. Back in the 1970s, the agency launched a hapless attempt to ban the substance - then took more than a decade to draw up rules, only to see them promptly struck down in the face of industry opposition.

That half-hearted approach continues to this day: This month, the Government Accountability Office will blast the agency for failing to properly investigate more than 260 factories that processed asbestos-tainted ores into household insulation. According to the auditors, the agency used crude, outdated tests, and failed even to consider potential health implications for workers and nearby residents. Even more worryingly, the agency refused to warn the 35 million homeowners whose insulation was potentially contaminated; efforts to declare a public health emergency were blocked by the White House, and a promised PR blitz never materialized.

Still, it could be worse: Over the border, Canada continues to mine asbestos, glossing over the health risks in the rush to exploit a lucrative developing-world market for the mineral. Out-greened by America? Our northern neighbors ought to be ashamed.