Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Asbestos Free India campaign of BANI is inspired by trade union movement and right to health campaign. BANI has been working since 2000. It works with peoples movements, doctors, researchers and activists besides trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims.

Friday, July 25, 2008

White House tries to push changes on asbestos, toxins

Agencies asked to ease safety rules

In its final days in power, the Bush White House is rushing to have federal agencies water down the regulation of hazardous substances, lawmakers and public health experts say. A panel of scientific advisers this week denounced an Environmental Protection Agency plan to quickly alter the way it measures the cancer-causing risk of asbestos, but the thumbs-down doesn't prevent the agency from making the change anyway.

The latest 11th-hour toxic sparring match comes while members of Congress are asking why the Labor Department has sent plans for sweeping changes in how workers are protected from chemical hazards directly to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Many of the government scientists and physicians in the Labor Department and other agencies who are normally required to weigh in on these kinds of changes say they haven't had a peek at the proposal.

Similar concern has been focused on the firing of John Howard, the popular director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,

People at EPA headquarters say the rush to have them change the way asbestos hazards are calculated is caused in part to OMB's desire to appease the automotive, mining, construction and chemical industries being sued for harm done by asbestos-containing material they've used or sold.

The 20 experts appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board's asbestos panel were to evaluate the validity of the EPA's plan to change how the toxicity of the six types of asbestos regulated by government differ in danger. The change centered on the EPA's desire to ignore decades worth of what are considered solid studies documenting the actual hazard of the most common type of asbestos -- chrysotile.

Instead, the EPA submitted other studies which, it said, showed chrysotile isn't dangerous and doesn't cause mesothelioma, an almost always fatal cancer, which often garners multimillion-dollar judgments in court cases brought by people sickened or killed by exposure to it.

Lawyers defending corporations against asbestos claims says passage would greatly increase their chances of convincing juries that the asbestos used by their company wasn't dangerous. The Labor Department's current efforts would offer the same benefit to corporations in litigation involving scores of other toxins.

Sen. Patty Murray, who has long fought for a ban on asbestos and better protection for workers, is angered by the EPA action.

"I'd like the political appointees at the EPA to look into the eyes of a mesothelioma patient and say that asbestos isn't dangerous. It appears that this administration is once again putting politics before public health," said the Washington Democrat.

On Monday and Tuesday, more than two dozen witnesses either provided statements or testified before the scientific panel.

"Garbage in, gospel out," said lead-off witness Dr. David Egilman. The occupational medicine specialist explained to the panel that industry-financed studies cited in the EPA report had been proved to have no scientific credibility. "This is another example of how this administration all too often bows to corporate pressure and facilitates regulations that fail to protect the health of both the workers and the public."

The EPA's position was that the new approach was needed to improve assessment of many asbestos-contaminated Superfund sites.

The only non-EPA person to speak in favor of the EPA's plan was Suresh Moolgavkar, an epidemiologist hired by W.R. Grace, which has been charged with contaminating the tiny northwest Montana town of Libby. But while saying that the EPA's efforts were needed, Moolgavkar nevertheless criticized the agency for the weakness of the data it presented.

Dr. Michael Silverstein, a University of Washington clinical professor and occupational health specialist, submitted a 29-page report signed by 87 of the nation's leading public health authorities. The document strongly questioned the EPA attempt to change the risk assessment methods and accuracy of the data the agency used.

"We knew plenty about asbestos. We didn't need more investigations. We didn't need more policy. What we did need was to stop exposures and stop the use of it," said Silverstein, who added that the latest effort by the EPA "just came out of nowhere and is one of a number of questionable things being rushed through at the end of this administration."

The Bush administration has repeatedly taken industry's position on issues involving asbestos and other toxic substances. For almost four years, Bush fought openly for asbestos tort reform to end workers' ability to sue their employers.

"Too much has happened for this not to be a last-ditch effort by the administration to weaken public safety rules, especially for workers," said Silverstein.

Among the recent actions that concern the physician and other public health activists was the firing earlier this month of NIOSH boss Howard, who unlike many of his predecessors, had support of both industry and labor.

He was fired July 3, about the same time that NIOSH released its controversial "Roadmap to asbestos."

Fred Blosser, NIOSH's chief spokesman, said. "The document doesn't make any final pronouncements on the toxicity of specific (asbestos) fibers but rather addresses the uncertainties about asbestos that has existed for years."

The final report from the panel will not be available for about a month, Vivian Turner, the panel's coordinator said Wednesday. According to those who observed the scientific sparring match, all but two members of the panel declared the proposal dead on arrival.

"Yes," said Turner being more diplomatic, "The view of most members was that there were problems with the document, and they made recommendations on how to improve it."

However, that may not prevent the EPA from charging ahead with the changes, said Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman.

"EPA will review the committee's comments and take them into consideration as we decide how to proceed. But we can move ahead without future approval from OMB or the (Science Advisory Board)."

This is far from the first attempt by the OMB to undercut safety standards in almost every federal agency, says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Fund who has worked with congressional investigators to control erosion of federal safety policies.

In January 2006, OMB issued a plan to dramatically change how all federal agencies assessed hazardous material.

"Every single federal agency was critical of OMB's plan and made no secret of their concerns," Sass said. "So the White House office tried an end run and asked the National Academies (of Science) to evaluate its plan, but the scientists all shot it down."

In January 2007, John Ahearne, chairman of the committee that did the evaluation, said: "We began our review of the draft bulletin thinking we would only be recommending changes, but the more we dug into it, the more we realized that from a scientific and technical standpoint, it should be withdrawn altogether."

"The White House has used this cloak of secrecy all too often," Sass said.

Hazardous substances are used by manufacturers of consumer products in literally thousands of ways. In recent months, the Seattle P-I has reported on the hazards of diacetyl, a butter-flavoring chemical used in butter popcorn and cooking oils, which causes bronchiolitis obliterans, a fatal lung disease. On Wednesday, the P-I reported a University of Washington study showing that toxic chemicals added as fragrances to laundry products and air fresheners are often not listed on product labels.

"Much-needed regulations to protect workers from lung cancer, silicosis, bronchiolitis obliterans and other serious disorders languish in the Department of Labor for decades," said Celeste Monforton, a former policy analyst with the Labor Department and a special assistant to an assistant secretary of labor.

"However, when it comes to some mystery proposal of the anti-regulatory ilk, there not even a peep in the pipeline and then poof, it's already at OMB for its blessing," added Monforton, who is now with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at George Washington University.

Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, agreed.

"For eight years, this administration has failed to make any significant progress in improving the health and safety of our nation's workers. Now, in its waning days, it appears that they are actually trying to increase barriers to workplace safety," the senator said.

Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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