Asbestos ban advocates hang on Libby verdict

Aricka Flowers Jun. 29, 2009, 7:00am

For activists who say they believe there should be a ban on asbestos, the controversial Libby, Mt., verdict for W.R. Grace has solidified their argument.

One congressional advocate and leader in the fight to ban asbestos reiterated her belief that there is a need to permanently shelter Americans from any risk of exposure to the potentially deadly building material.

"Today's disappointing verdict is a reminder of the urgent need to ban asbestos in America," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement on the day the verdict was announced last month.

Murray has been actively pushing for a complete ban on asbestos for several years. Since 2003, she has been pressing for the passage of her Ban Asbestos in America bill (S. 1115).

If passed, the bill would increase funding for asbestos-related diseases, authorize funding for additional studies to locate what commercial products use asbestos and call for the creation of a mesothelioma registry.

But one legal expert says a ban on asbestos may not be as easy to enforce as it seems.

"Nobody is using asbestos anymore as a product," said David Uhlmann, professor and director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School.

Uhlmann led the U.S. Justice Department's environmental crime section when the government decided to bring charges against W.R. Grace.

"Asbestos is a deadly carcinogen if improperly released into the atmosphere, so there are a lot of rules governing the safe handling of asbestos products. The irony is there is probably asbestos in most buildings that were constructed before the 1970s and certainly before the 1950s. And when left intact in the ceiling, floor tiles and in the walls there is not a problem," Uhlmann said.

"Only when it's disturbed is when it can be problematic; particularly when that's done in a place where there is not proper air flow," he continued. "It's very important that people handle the material in a safe and responsible way. Banning it and trying to remove it from where it is already in place would make it worse because it would disturb the asbestos, so I don't think that's the answer."

One of the potential roadblocks to an asbestos ban is the cost of implementing such a rule. Asbestos has been used in many construction materials, including housing insulation, for decades and lies inconspicuously in buildings and homes across the country.

Because of this, one Montana law professor thinks that, although asbestos exposure is deadly, removing the material from the numerous buildings in which it lies would be a costly and arduous venture that many people simply don't want to undertake.

"It is interesting they have not been able to get a ban on asbestos," said Andrew King-Reis, law professor at the University of Montana. "It has obvious uses, but it comes at incredible public health costs. One of the challenges here is that asbestos is in millions and millions of homes. Corporations always claim that, if it is used properly and not disturbed, it does not pose any health issues; that's always their challenge.

"I think the government proved very clearly that particulates in Libby, Montana release an incredible amount of asbestos fibers," he continued. "The science is clear that people suffer incredible health costs from exposure to asbestos. The body is totally unable to get rid of asbestos; once you inhale it, it's there forever. So really, there's no safe level of asbestos. Therefore it doesn't make sense that it's hard to make it illegal, but there are political and practical issues involved. Around the world we are seeing that it makes people die a horrible death; so at some point you think, maybe we should respond to that."

Exposure to asbestos poses major health risks with mesothelioma being the most prevalent condition. But inhaling the material can also bring on other deadly diseases like lung cancer and a type of pneumonia known as asbestosis.

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