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Environmental connections to public health >>

Products that Contain Asbestos Should be Regulated and Labeled

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

If a product you were thinking of buying contained asbestos, chances are you’d want to know while you were in the store, say, by reading a warning on the item’s label.

Like most Americans, you’d want to avoid buying such an item, because, as you probably know, asbestos fibers are microscopic – hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all forms of asbestos are hazardous, and no level of exposure to the substance is safe. It’s well documented that inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, a painful and often fatal inflammation; lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare, always fatal malignancy which can strike the lungs and sometimes heart, gastrointestinal system and testes.

No merchandise made with asbestos or contaminated with it should be on the market. But current law doesn’t ban this dangerous mineral. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 does not give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the tools it needs to ban asbestos. An EPA proposal to do just that was rejected by a federal appeals court in 1991.

As Congress debates two legislative proposals to fix the substantially flawed TSCA law, it’s worth considering whether either bill would allow the EPA to do what is required to regulate items containing asbestos.

Industry bill: Common sense dictates that if a substance is dangerous, as asbestos clearly is, consumer products that contain it should be pasted with warning labels. But the bill backed (and possibly written) by the chemical industry and introduced by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M. and David Vitter, R-La., proposes to strike language in the current law that allows the EPA to require items containing regulated substances to bear warnings.

Even worse, this bill would force the EPA to prove that users of a product would endure “significant exposure” to a dangerous substance before the agency could regulate the item. To be clear, the bill would set up a new hurdle for the EPA that would be more harmful to public health than current law. If every single one of the vast number of products that could contain asbestos or other dangerous substances had to be evaluated individually, the EPA would be hard-pressed to actually protect consumers.

Boxer-Markey bill: In contrast, the bill proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass, explicitly covers products as well as raw substances themselves. The Boxer-Markey bill would not require evidence of “significant exposure” before the EPA could act to protect the public from a dangerous substance like asbestos. It would give the federal government the power to regulate risky articles by any means appropriate, including forcing industry to label products whose contents could pose risks to consumers.


The Boxer-Markey bill would not hamstring the EPA from taking action against products containing asbestos, or any other substances that could endanger human health. In stark contrast, the Udall-Vitter proposal would erect two new roadblocks that would deny the EPA the authority it needs to protect consumers from asbestos-laced products. It would worsen an already broken current law.


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