Monday, October 15, 2007

Senate passes Murray bill to ban asbestos

Sen. Patty Murray has looked into the eyes of too many people who would die from exposure to asbestos.

Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass Murray's ban on the importation of asbestos, which still is found in more than 3,000 consumer products. If approved by the House and not vetoed by the president, the United States will finally join more than 40 other nations that have banned the cancer-causing material.

Lots of tears were shed during Murray's six-year battle to get support for the ban. The Washington Democrat and her staff talked to George Biekkola, a taconite miner from the Michigan Iron Range. They talked to Les Skramsted, who sucked in his lethal dose of asbestos from the vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont. When they, and many others, died, she talked to the widows. Lots of widows, she said.

With an intensity that bordered on obsession, Murray and her staff became experts on asbestos, where it came from and how it killed.

Her schedule shows more than 100 meetings on issues surrounding the ban with labor leaders, lobbyists, lawyers, industry leaders and physicians -- government and civilian -- who were tired of watching their patients die deaths that shouldn't have happened. Murray needed to learn and then to teach.

She met with families in Washington whose homes were insulated with asbestos-tainted vermiculite and listened to their fear of what harm has been done to their families.

She spoke to the children of a brake mechanic from Seattle whose father died of asbestos disease. Her staff had a hard time explaining to the two teenagers why brakes still contained asbestos.

Corporate opposition to Murray's efforts was enormous.

"When you go after an issue like this, you're fighting a lot of big-time money. Lobbyists for manufacturers, the sand and gravel folks, people with commercial interest and a lot of clout fought this," Murray said. "I wasn't surprised that many other (lawmakers) didn't want to get involved because they thought it was impossible."

Early in the fight, the White House did all it could to stymie discussion, let alone passage of the ban. Murray's efforts were a victim of collateral damage from a three-year Republican effort to pass legislation favored by President Bush that would have prevented people injured by exposure to asbestos from suing the companies involved.

For the past seven months, Murray said, she worked closely with Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He convinced Republicans of the importance of the ban, she said.

Murray says she's sure it will become law.

"The House leadership said it was waiting for us to act, and I expect them to move quickly," she said. "And, I have not heard a word from the president about vetoing the bill. We worked for months addressing every possible objection and I think the White House would have a very hard time vetoing this."

She said the ban would be the best thing she has accomplished "because it will save lives. Lots of them."

Murray says that two years after her bill is signed into law, there will be no asbestos in hair dryers or brake products or ceiling tiles or 3,000 other imported products.

Among the many demands in the legislation is the banning of the importation, manufacture, processing and distribution of products containing asbestos. It orders the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure asbestos products are off the shelves within two years of the bill's enactment.

It would create a $50 million "Asbestos-Related Disease Research and Treatment Network" of 10 new centers dedicated to finding better treatment, earlier detection and methods of preventing asbestos-related disease.

It says the EPA shall conduct a public education campaign to increase awareness of the dangers posed by products containing or contaminated by asbestos, including in homes and workplaces.


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