Thursday, March 4, 2004

Asbestos: Think Again

A six-month EWG Action Fund investigation into asbestos in America uncovered an epidemic of asbestos disease and mortality that affects every state and virtually every community in the country. Asbestos kills 10,000 Americans each year, 2,500 more than skin cancer, and that number appears to be increasing. While most of these individuals are workers exposed decades ago, asbestos is not yet banned and more than 1 million people are currently exposed to asbestos on the job. Millions more are exposed to asbestos in the environment. As long as asbestos continues to be used in consumer products and remains available for dispersion in millions of buildings and homes where it was used liberally for half a century, it will continue to kill and injure thousands of innocent people for decades to come.

Advocates of asbestos tort reform argue that excessive litigation by individuals injured by asbestos is bankrupting scores of major corporations and may even bankrupt the U.S. economy. A review of public statements by corporations with asbestos liability shows otherwise. "Bankrupt" companies put quite a different face on this liability for Wall Street investors, calling their asbestos bankruptcies "good news" (Halliburton), with "little impact on day-to-day operations" (Babcock and Wilcox).

Most companies that have been through asbestos bankruptcies are highly competitive and profitable. This is because asbestos bankruptcies are not liquidations, but are reorganizations that shield all company assets and subsidiaries from future asbestos claims as they attempt to provide fair compensation for individuals and families harmed by decades of highly profitable, but largely uncontrolled, asbestos manufacturing and use.

Asbestos is a public health problem of epidemic proportions. More than 100,000 people will die of asbestos diseases in the United States in the next ten years, and many more than that will be forced to live with painful, permanent and debilitating lung damage.

But asbestos is also a story of unparalleled corporate callousness. For more than 50 years, company after company was willing to lie to their workers about the known hazards of asbestos, mislead regulators, manipulate science, and delay worker safeguards. During all of this time, not a single producer, user, or insurance company stepped forward to defend the health and rights of workers who, with full knowledge of management and medical staff, were literally dying by the thousands from exposure to this substance.

It was only through the courts that this story was uncovered. It was only through the courts that some small percentage of injured workers and their families received some assistance in managing the personal tragedy of asbestos injury and death.

Now comes the Congress with a plan to help the victims of asbestos. The core of this plan is a national asbestos trust fund of uncertain size. The proposed legislation and the fund it would create have been criticized by asbestos victims and their lawyers as a bail-out for companies with asbestos liability that is inadequate to help all injured parties, and will confiscate money from people who have already had their day in court and been awarded funds to help them manage their illnesses.

The asbestos tragedy is so enormous that a national trust fund may indeed be part of a solution. The fund proposed by Senators Frist and Hatch, however, is grossly insufficient. It is capped at about $110 billion dollars but according to an independent analysis of a 2003 study commissioned by the insurance industry, the fund may need to be tripled to more than $300 billion to provide for all people injured by asbestos over the next 50 years (Peterson, 2003b).


Whatever solution is adopted, be it a fund, litigation, or a combination of the two, it must adhere to the following principles.

  • Everyone injured by asbestos must receive a fair measure of assistance, and this help must not be delayed, denied, or made more complicated by any action taken by the Congress. Because asbestos is still used this means that funds must be available to help people for at least another 50 years, and very likely longer.
  • In order to ensure that everyone injured by asbestos receives help, the Congress should establish a major federal asbestos health screening initiative through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The goal would be to screen everyone with work history of asbestos exposure to identify the millions of people likely injured by asbestos.
  • No one should be forced to give up their right to legal representation. A national trust fund may be part of an equitable solution to the asbestos epidemic, but participation in the fund must be optional, as it is with the fund established to help families of the World Trade Center disaster.
  • Asbestos must be banned. There is no reason to continue the litany of unnecessary injury and death that comes from asbestos use. Alternatives exist, the time to ban asbestos is now.
  • Asbestos remediation must be tightly monitored by health and environmental authorities. A string of recent press accounts reveals that unsafe, and even fraudulent practices are rampant in the asbestos remediation industry.
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