December 17th, 2007 Senator Patty Murray is trying for the third time in six years to get Congress to ban the use and import of asbestos in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, more than 40 countries have banned or are in the process of phasing out the use of asbestos. The United States should be in that group. Many Americans assume that asbestos is a problem of the past and would be shocked to learn that more than 3,000 different asbestos-containing products are still being imported and used in the United States today. These products continue to be used despite the fact that asbestos exposure has been known for decades to cause mesothelioma as well as lung cancer and various other diseases and despite the fact that asbestos kills an estimated 10,000 people a year in the U.S. alone.

Asbestos: A Problem of the Past?

In North America, the only generally-accepted causes of mesothelioma– a cancer that kills approximately 3,000 Americans each year are asbestos as well as thoracic or abdominal radiotherapy . Mesothelioma usually takes decades to develop, and cannot be diagnosed until as long as 20 to 60 years after asbestos exposure. Because of this latency period between exposure and diagnosis, the incidence of mesothelioma has still not peaked, and it is believed that the number of cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year will continue to rise until sometime between 2010 and 2020. Mesothelioma is now being diagnosed in younger people and more frequently in women: according to a recent report by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Association (ADAO), the median age at diagnosis of mesothelioma patients who contact the organization has dropped to 51, with women representing close to 50 percent of new cases. By contrast, in 1986 the median age of mesothelioma patients was nearly 70, and approximately 80 percent of mesothelioma patients were men.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is not the only asbestos-related disease that has affected and killed American workers. Asbestos exposure also causes asbestosis, progressive scarring of the lungs that causes shortness of breath and, if severe, can suffocate its victims. Asbestos exposure has also been connected to a variety of cancers, including lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer. Again, these diseases will not manifest and cannot be discovered for many years generally 20 years or more after the asbestos exposure. It is estimated that during the next decade, 100,000 Americans will die of asbestos-related diseases averaging 30 a day.

Health Effects of Asbestos

It has been known for many decades that asbestos can cause dangerous diseases, including cancer. Scientists determined by 1930 that asbestos exposure caused asbestosis. By the 1930s and 1940s, there was evidence that asbestos exposure could also cause lung cancer, and by 1960, it was clear that asbestos exposure caused mesothelioma. In 1918, the asbestos industry knew than some insurance companies would refuse to insure asbestos workers because they “were at increased risk of dying.” None of this information is new, and still we import and use thousands of asbestos products every year in this country when safer alternatives are available.

Why Use Asbestos When We Have Safer Alternatives?

In June, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held hearings on Senator Patty Murray’s proposed bill to ban asbestos use, import or distribution in the United States. Senator Murray’s office reported that the U.S. currently imports over $100 million a year in asbestos-containing products, including brake pads, cement pipe, and floor and roofing tiles. Senator Barbara Boxer, cosponsor of the bill, noted that world production of asbestos actually increased in 2005. The last U.S. asbestos mine closed just five years ago, and in 2005 the U.S. imported 2,530 metric tons of asbestos, along with 90,000 metric tons of products that contain it.

Congressional Hearings to Ban Asbestos

Senator Murray has announced that she is close to working out an agreement on the proposed asbestos ban that would completely phase out asbestos within two years (three years for the chlorine industry, where asbestos is used in chlorine processing) and provide $50 million in federal money to research causes and treatment for asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma. The bill would also require the federal government to embark on a public education campaign about asbestos risks. It is important that Senator Murray’s bill passes this year and that the United States stop importing asbestos that we know will kill more Americans in future decades. We have alternatives that will keep us safer, and it’s time to rely on them.