Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Board, January 15, 2003
The slow-motion disaster of asbestos that originated in Libby, Mont., may be spreading across the country.
Tens of millions of homes, schools and businesses may contain insulation heavily contaminated by the cancer-causing material. It isn't a cause for panic, but it deserves attention.
The Bush administration, however, has so far ignored the health risks for millions of Americans. In its knowing refusal to face squarely the dangers of asbestos, the administration is in what might be called good company. It joins the ranks of the W.R. Grace & Co., which kept mining asbestos-containing vermiculite in Libby for years with little apparent regard for worker safety, and legions of officials who have failed for decades to protect the public adequately.
The administration should turn itself around on asbestos. It can start by implementing public health and awareness campaigns regarding the asbestos contamination in Libby and in millions of homes. The Zonolite insulation, sold nationally from the '40s through the '90s, used almost exclusively vermiculite from Libby that contained a particularly lethal form of asbestos called tremolite.
Then the administration can do the only truly sensible thing about asbestos: support a bill to ban the use of asbestos. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who promises to reintroduce it in this session, sponsored the proposal last year.
First, though, Murray, whose interest in the issue grew out of Post-Intelligencer investigative reports beginning in 1999, is asking for an explanation from the administration of why it dropped plans to declare a public health emergency in Libby, authorizing removal of Zonolite insulation from homes there and providing long-term medical care for people made sick by the asbestos. If it had gone forward, the Environmental Protection Agency action also would have notified homeowners nationally that their insulation could be contaminated.
Former Post-Intelligencer senior national correspondent Andrew Schneider reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in late December that the White House Office of Management and Budget blocked the EPA's plans. That intervention demands explanation of what budget officials considered more important than dealing with a direct threat to human health.
A warning about asbestos-contaminated insulation could save many people from mesothelioma, a disease caused only by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma, which develops years after exposure, kills 2,000 people a year.
The larger question, however, is why the nation has never banned asbestos. By the middle of last year, at least 20 countries had banned asbestos. A ban will go into effect in 2005 across the European Union. During the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration, the EPA had the good sense to try to ban asbestos. But it lost a court case.
Murray's bill contains a wealth of sensible proposals, including a process for exemptions if no substitute for asbestos is available. Asbestos is used most often now in brakes, gaskets and roofing materials. Murray's bill also would advance mesothelioma research and treatment.
The conventional wisdom is that environmental protection will receive little positive attention in the new Congress with Republican control of both houses. But the assessment may be simplistic. A Murray spokesman compares the issue to her pipeline safety legislation, which passed last year with broad bipartisan support and with President Bush's signature.
Murray is seeking Republican co-sponsors on the asbestos bill. Asbestos shouldn't be a partisan issue -- it's about public safety.