Asbestos Bill Would Ban Most Future Use

As the Senate holds hearings on a bill to compensate asbestos victims, disputes among lawmakers about the proposed $140 billion trust fund to compensate those suffering from asbestos illnesses continues to dominate the news, diverting attention from legislative efforts that would ban most future uses of asbestos.

Asbestos is illegal in most industrialized countries, and for years, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has attempted -- and failed -- to pass legislation banning its use in America.

Since reaching a peak of 803,000 metric tons in 1973, asbestos consumption in the U.S. has fallen steadily, but it continues to be used. Last year, U.S. companies utilized a little less than 3,500 tons of asbestos, according to the Asbestos Information Association of North America (AIA/NA).

If it became law, the bill would, within 2 years, prohibit "persons from manufacturing, processing or distributing in commerce asbestos-containing products," with the following specific exceptions:

  • Asbestos diaphragms for use in the manufacture of "chlor-alkali" (chlorine) and its derivatives;
  • Roofing cements, coatings, and mastics utilizing asbestos that is totally encapsulated with asphalt;
  • The Secretary of Defense or the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could use asbestos for purposes they deem "critical to the functions" of their respective agencies if they cannot find alternatives.

"To my knowledge, the provisions concerning the continued use of asbestos have not been controversial," said a Senate staff person who works on S. 852, sponsored by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The bill would put our association out of business," commented Bob Pigg, president of AIA/NA. "We are opposed to it." Pigg said there are now fewer than 20 asbestos manufacturers in the United States.

The ban has won the support, however, of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a far more powerful industry group that is the chair of the Asbestos Alliance, an industry group formed to look for solutions to the asbestos crisis.

"We have supported the ban on future use of asbestos," said Jan Amundson, general counsel of NAM. "There are some exceptions and we believe these exceptions are appropriate."

One minor dispute over the asbestos ban is a provision inserted at the insistence of organized labor that would increase penalties on employers who violate existing EPA and OSHA asbestos regulations; the money collected would be added to the trust to compensate victims. Amundson said NAM believes existing penalties are sufficient to deter illegal activity.

Douglas Larkin, spokesperson for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), opposes Specter's bill for a variety of reasons, among them the exceptions allowing for limited continued use of asbestos.

Even though there is now general agreement on the provisions to ban the use of asbestos, because of disagreements over the size of the trust fund and other issues, it is far from certain that Specter can cobble together enough support among Democrats and Republicans to pass S. 852, the most recent legislative effort to take asbestos victims' compensation cases out of the court system.

A spokesperson for NAM declined to endorse the bill. In an April 22 statement, John Sweeney, president of AFL-CIO, said his organization opposed S. 852 because it "creates a new system that will leave thousands of seriously ill asbestos victims with no guaranteed right to receive timely compensation for their injuries."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take action on the asbestos bill April 28.

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