Governments Debate Asbestos
Events which occurred during the middle of May 2008 reveal a rising awareness by governments in Europe, Asia and North America of the harmful effects asbestos exposures are having on populations and the environment. The discussions reported in this article took place in countries at three different stages of the asbestos cycle:
On May 14, the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Committee held its annual Asbestos Seminar in the House of Commons, Westminster. The keynote speaker at this year's event was Professor Bruce Robinson, one of the world's leading researchers on the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. Since it was founded, Professor Robinson has been the Director of the Australia's National Centre for Asbestos-Related Disease Research (NCARD), a virtual institute hosted at the University of Western Australia. NCARD channels research funding and provides coordination of national efforts to improve the outcome for mesothelioma patients.
The predicted compensation costs for asbestos-related disease which Robinson cited were colossal: USA $200 billion (bn), Europe $85bn, Australia $8.5bn = $300bn. Victims do not want this money; they want their health, he said. The government, insurance companies and asbestos corporations do not want to pay this $300bn. At the same time, Robinson pointed out, scientists and clinicians don't have enough funding for the research needed to cure this disease. In Australia, a win-win solution to this dilemma has been identified; the Government believes that by investing a small proportion of the projected compensation payouts into research, a cure might be found.
Judging by the lively discussion and keen questioning following Professor Robinson's presentation, there is serious interest in establishing a similar organization in the UK.1
On May 15, Madhumitta Dutta, a grass-roots activist from an Indian NGO,2 made a presentation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour on the Health Impact of Asbestos on Workers in India. The committee consists of 25 members of the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the Indian Parliament representing various political parties.3 Ms. Dutta was accompanied to the session at the Parliament AnnexeNew Delhi by researcher/photo-journalist P. Madhavan, H. Mahadevan, Deputy Secretary of the AITUC and P.K. Ganguly, National Secretary of the CITU, India's largest left-wing unions. During Ms. Dutta'sminute presentation, P Madhavan showed a series of photographs depicting hazardous exposures in the mining, processing and use of asbestos. Another twenty minute presentation was made by the trade unionists which was followed by a period for questions and answers.
Although asbestos has not been banned in the United States, its use has dwindled considerably due to the threat of litigation. Nevertheless, campaigning groups have been actively lobbying for a number of years for a ban on all asbestos use in the U.S. In October 2007, the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007 was passed by the Senate.4 Unfortunately somewhere between the drafting of the Senate bill and its unanimous adoption, the language was changed. American business executive, mesothelioma survivor and activist Paul Zygielbaum explains:
Rather than banning all products containing asbestos, whether as an ingredient or as a contaminant, the revised Senate bill would ban only 'asbestos containing materials,' which have a legal definition that generally allows asbestos content up to 1% by weight. The revised bill also calls for studies of the state of scientific knowledge about the hazards of asbestos, a provision sought by industry sources. The bill omits provisions in the earlier draft that would have mandated government testing of products for asbestos content.5
A determined effort began, directed at the House of Representatives (House), to reinstate the original wording. On May 18, there was a briefing of Democratic staffers on the Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington D.C. to consider the more stringent House Committee Print which seeks to establish a ban on asbestos-containing products, initiate a public education effort to increase awareness of the dangers of exposure to asbestos and provide compliance testing. Experts who spoke at this briefing included: Peg Seminario, Director of Safety and Health, ALF-CIO, Dr. Arthur Frank from Drexel University, Mrs. Linda Reinstein, Executive Director of the ADAO and others.
Should the House pass a stricter bill than the Senate, a legislative committee will be asked to produce a compromise bill for submission to the President. This opens up yet another can of worms such as the omissions which could be demanded by opponents of the ban as well as the possibility of a Presidential veto. Opinion is divided over the best course of action on the thorny 1% issue. Zygielbaum continues:
The 1% limit defined in the Senate bill is viewed by some as a stop-gap, with the hope that a future Congress could muster the support needed for a complete ban.Others believe that, if the Senate bill becomes law, it's unlikely to be revisited in the foreseeable future. Still others point out that the 1% limit would institutionalize asbestos content and contamination in products on American store shelves.one person put it, 'A 1% limit could mean that it would be permissible to have asbestos in my cornflakes.'
Speaking about the House briefing on May 18, Mrs. Reinstein said:
The ADAO supports the House Committee Print that eliminates the 1% exemption and establishes a statutory ban on asbestos. We agree with the World Health Organization's powerful statement that, 'The most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.' Scientific technology has made gigantic strides in asbestos detection since the 1970s. We don't have to compromise public safety by using antiquated analytical standards. Recent Congressional testimony reaffirmed that 1% is not a health based number and asbestos exposure is deadly. We only have one opportunity to ban asbestos and it is now. Congress can and should pass this legislation to ban asbestos-containing products, initiate a public awareness program and provide for compliance testing which is fully justified, absolutely necessary, and long overdue.
Whatever the eventual outcome of these activities, there can be little doubt that asbestos victims' groups and campaigners are now participating at the highest levels of policy making on asbestos issues in the UK, India and the U.S. The bad old days when the asbestos industry had a stranglehold on national asbestos debates is well and truly over.
May 21, 2008
2 This NGO is the Corporate Accountability Desk, The Other Media.
3 As photographs are not allowed in the Parliament buildings in New Delhi, we are using this photograph of Ms. Dutta taken during the Global Asbestos Congress in Tokyo in 2004.