Thank you Madame Chair for holding this hearing today.
The health effects of exposure to certain kinds of asbestos are well known and tragic. Chest, lung and gastrointestinal cancers are horrible diseases. On that, there is very little debate. This is why the United States has essentially eliminated the use of the most dangerous forms of asbestos and our use of the other forms is severely limited to those critical uses for which there is no readily available substitute. That is also why bipartisan language to ban asbestos has been included in the bills addressing the asbestos liability situation in the last two Congresses.
It may sound simplistic, but the debate is not over true asbestos minerals and their health effects. That has been extensively studied and we have an entire legal liability system built around it. But rather, any debate here, if there is one, has to do with the potential health effects of other types of minerals. These non-asbestiform minerals have the same chemical makeup as asbestos but have entirely different physical structures. Similar to coal and diamonds or water and ice.
However, our primitive, analytical techniques used for indoor remediation of commercially produced asbestos falsely identify these rocks as asbestos. In fact, the US Geological Survey said that “…the counting criteria developed for analysis of asbestos in the workplace or in commercial products may not be appropriate for direct application to what is currently referred to as naturally occurring asbestos.”
Let me show you what I mean. As you can plainly see, dangerous asbestos minerals consist of fibers that are long, skinny, and very flexible. Research has shown these fibers are hard for the human lung to eliminate. They essentially get trapped in the lungs, sometimes causing diseases decades after the initial exposure. Non-asbestiform minerals, these rocks here, break up into particles called cleavage fragments, which are short, fat and bulky. Studies have shown that these cleavage fragments do not pose the same health risk as their fibrous asbestos counterparts.
We do not know if these non-asbestiform minerals have specific health risks but yet they are regulated currently as airborne particles by the US EPA, OSHA and the Mining Safety and Health Administration, thereby protecting against occupational exposure. But what we do know is that these cleavage fragments do not cause the same diseases as asbestos and therefore, they must be treated differently. It should be noted that the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health recently began an effort to collect and analyze available data on asbestos and other minerals. Other agencies are working on this too, including EPA, OSHA, Mining Safety and Health Administration, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the US Geological Survey.
The previous bipartisan language to ban asbestos recognized these fundamental mineralogical and medical differences and banned the true culprit. Despite the fact that this language was not debated here in the Environment and Public Works Committee, as it should have been, I have never stood in the way of the substance of that language as it represented a carefully constructed agreement, provided a process for critical use exemptions, and was scientifically sound with respect to the mineralogy of asbestos. The ban language was supported by the affected industries and negotiated with Senator Murray and her staff and has held intact through two Congresses. Any legislation that comes through this committee in this Congress should do the same. I believe there is real potential here for bipartisan compromise if we don’t go beyond what the science shows to be true.
I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today and to further understanding the various minerals and the differences in their health effects.