US Senate Committee Warned About Ongoing Asbestos Hazards

Senate Urged to Consider Asbestos Ban

WASHINGTON D.C.—August 13, 2001—"This isn't how I planned to spend my retirement," said George Biekkola, who had worked as a hard rock driller and repairman in an asbestos–contaminated mine for 30 years. Diagnosed with asbestosis, the 67–year–old man is now unable to perform most everyday activities due to reduced lung capacity and shortness of breath. "My x–rays showed asbestos in my lungs, but the company doctor told me not to worry," he recently testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Also speaking before the Committee was David Pinter, a former heavy equipment operator and mechanic at a vermiculite mine in Louisa, Virginia. Still in operation, the mine is heavily contaminated with asbestos and has produced asbestos–containing vermiculite used in hundreds of products such as fertilizers and insulation.

Avoiding Another Libby Montana

Senator Patty Murray (D. Washington) had requested the hearing to explore ways to avoid future asbestos tragedies such as the one that occurred in Libby, Montana, home of yet another asbestos–contaminated vermiculite mine. In Libby, not only were miners and their families affected by asbestos, but the material was found at schools, playgrounds, and other community areas.

Top government officials discussed what federal agencies could have done to prevent the Libby Montana tragedy, current efforts at asbestos cleanup, and future ways to prevent problems. The speakers included the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health, the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Health and Safety, the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The government policies and regulations we currently have in place didn't protect the workers, their families or the other residents in Libby, Montana from the deadly hazards of asbestos," remarked Senator Max Baucas (D. Montana). "That's a hard reality, and it should raise a lot of red flags about where, when and how the government regulates asbestos in this country today."

Complete Ban on Asbestos Urged

Senator Murray and others pointed out that in the United States it is still legal to include asbestos in various consumer products. For example, asbestos can be found in certain garden products, brakes, clutches, and roofing materials. And asbestos can be a continuing hazard in homes and buildings that contain the material in insulation, shingles, and tiles.

Dr. Richard Lemen, the former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States and a professor at Emory University, called for a complete ban on asbestos in all products. "Now is the time for the United States to be added to the growing list of countries that have banned the import and use of asbestos," he said. These countries include Chile, Argentina, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"I'm angry at the [asbestos] industry and its friends in high places who have allowed the carnage to occur," said Dr. Michael Harbut, a Michigan physician, teacher, and medical director, who also called for a total ban on asbestos. "For decades, the society, the courts and much of the government have regarded asbestosis as a legal inconvenience. My patients and I ask you to understand that to them and their families, asbestosis means disease and death."