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The painful and deadly toll that asbestos imposes on families across the globe is a public health problem of growing magnitude.  In the U.S., individuals who are diagnosed today with asbestos-related disease may trace their exposure to the lethal mineral fibers back several decades.  The number of new cases of asbestos-related disease in the U.S. has not yet plateaued, and may not for years.  Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that  125 million people are currently exposed to asbestos at work or in their communities.   What will come of these individuals in the years ahead when the diseases manifest themselves??    Last year the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) produced an amazing, but frightening documentary “Canada’s Ugly Secret” and when I show it to my students, I ask “what will these people look like in 20 years?”   Their answers are not pretty and not hopeful.

The time has long past for the U.S. to stand up for the public’s health and pass strong laws to protect future generations from asbestos-related disease.  As we mark the end of Asbestos-Disease Awareness Week (April 1-7) and begin National Public Health Week (Nov 5-11) I urged every reader of TPH to take 1 minute to read the policy resolution adopted by the American Public Health Association (APHA) in 2009 calling for the global elimination of asbestos and strong prevention measures.   The resolution urges:

  1. Congress to pass legislation banning the manufacture, sale, export, or import of asbestos-containing products (i.e., products to which asbestos is intentionally added or products in which asbestos is a contaminant).
  2. NIOSH and OSHA to issue an annual statement to alert workers in high-risk occupationsof the adverse health risks associated with exposure to asbestos and include information on potential early warning symptoms in at least English, Spanish, and French.
  3. US Administration to support efforts for a legally binding treaty to ban asbestos mining and manufacturing throughout the world.
  4. Congress to ban the exportation of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials for use or destruction in developing countries.
  5.  US Administration to use its diplomatic influence with Canada, Russia, and other countries to stop their dangerous practice of exporting asbestos.
  6. Global corporations and development banks to establish policies prohibiting asbestos-containing materials in new construction and disaster relief projects.
  7. Governments to provide income support and retraining, and funding for relocation if necessary, for workers who would lose their jobs as a result of protective legislation.

Astute public health practitioners knew as early as 1898 that exposure to the lethal miner fibers caused severe respiratory damage.  When Selikoff, Churg and Hammond published their study in 1964 of cancer deaths among U.S. and Canadian asbestos insulation workers, the evidence of its harm to people’s health was incontrovertible.   Yet, like the tobacco industry, individuals who profit from asbestos peddle their deadly product with no chance of being held responsible for the severe harm caused to others–especially when that harm may not appear for years and years.   

By adopting all the recommendations of APHA’s resolution, the U.S. and global community can create a world in which future generations will look at asbestos-related disease as an ugly thing of the past.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is immediate past chair of the OHS Section of APHA.  She was pleased to join fellow APHA members Barry Castleman and Linda Reinstein in drafting the resolution on asbestos adopted by the organization at its 2009 annual meeting.  She is looking forward to attending the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s 6th annual international conference entitled “Knowledge is Stronger than Asbestos” on April 9-11 in Chicago, IL. 

Asbestos exposure and asbestos-related disease remains a huge public health problem.  The World Health Organization estimates that at least 7,000 individual across the globe die annually from asbestos-releated disease, and another 125 million people are currently exposed to asbestos at work or in their communities.  Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reaffirmed its assessment that exposure to ANY form of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite) is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma, and that mineral substances like talc and vermiculite that contain asbestos are carcinogenic as well.  Moreover, IARC notes that asbestos exposure causes cancer of the larynx and the ovary. 

Besides its well deserved cancer label, exposure to asbestos causes tens of thousands of individuals to suffer and die from asbestosis, a chronic fibrotic pulmonary disease that robs people of their breath.  Recognizing the toll of harm created by the use and global trade in this deadly fiber, in November 2009 the American Public Health Association—the largest public health organization in the world—adopted a policy resolution calling for a global ban on asbestos.  Despite all the scientific evidence about the danger of asbestos exposure, interest groups and governments continue to sow doubt about it affect on people’s health.

KNOWLEDGE, however, is stronger than asbestos. 

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by Rena Steiznor, cross-posted from CPR Blog

Original title: “Sunstein Watch: Old Habits Die Hard on the Regulatory Killing Ground; Don’t OMB Economists Have Better Things to Do Than Channel Industry Opposition to EPA Science?”

Before Cass Sunstein had spent much more than a week as the official director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), he invited us over to the White House to talk about how he wanted to shape his small office of economists and statisticians into a strong force for progressive policy within the White House. Followers of the Center for Progressive Reform know that we put out a report in the run-up to his confirmation that was critical of his views on cost-benefit analysis. So I give him credit for opening the door to us, and so soon after his confirmation at that.

It was a good meeting, and we pledged to keep in touch as he undertakes what I hope will be a re-education that will convert his staff from the Bush mode – serving as a sort of waiting room for disgruntled industries – to what we hope will be the Obama mode – serving as a group of visionary economists that identifies the toughest problems holding back desperately needed protections for workers, the public, and the environment, and then moving to make sure the regulatory structure does something about them.

An obscure set of documents posted just last week on the EPA website illustrates the point, demonstrating that in the period before Sunstein’s confirmation OIRA staff were continuing business as usual, acting as if President George W. Bush were still president.

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I’ve often suspected that some federal agencies apply very broad definitions to the exemptions provided under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Now, thanks to one diligent journalist I can judge for myself whether the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is an offender. 

Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News requested records from MSHA and the Solicitor’s Office (SOL) about its legal determination that the haulage road on which coal-truck drive Chad Cook, 25, died, was under MSHA jurisdication.  MSHA had made a gross error in 2005-2006 when it concluded that the road was private property.  (In November 2007, the senior officials reversed themselves, but it was too late to get justice for Chad Cook.)   Smith made her FOIA request for the legal determination in August 2008, and MSHA responded 7 months later.   They provided a four-page memo written by SOL, but redacted certain portions under FOIA Exemption 4.   This exemption is allowed to protect

“trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”

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Our regular readers are no doubt familiar with the efforts of various industries to protect their particular products from regulation. These industries (and the organizations they fund) often succeed in weakening or delaying regulations intended to protect people from climate change, tobacco, and other hazards. 

In addition to battling specific regulatory proposals, these same industries often fund efforts to weaken the agencies, groups, and process that advance regulation. For instance, the infamous Data Quality Act, which makes it far too easy for regulated industries to gum up the works at federal agencies, had roots in Philip Morris’s efforts to halt regulation of secondhand smoke. 

Now, the Natural Resources News Service’s Adam Sarvana warns us about an often-overlooked player in the anti-regulatory arena: Roger Bate, who has used the issue of DDT and malaria “to pit potential allies in regulatory efforts, especially environmentalists and public health advocates, against each other in an effort to draw their fire away from regulated industries, including tobacco.”

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American News Project has just posted a new video segment about how tactics used to defend tobacco are now staving off action on climate change. In “Smoke and CO2: How to Spin Global Warming,” Danielle Ivory gives an eight-minute overview of how we went from reassurances that tobacco isn’t really harmful to insistence that we don’t really need to worry about global warming. Our own David Michaels provides commentary.

Even if you already know all about how manufactured doubt has stalled progress on smoking cessation and greenhouse-gas reductions, it’s worth watching the piece for its collection of ads and speeches by those trying to prevent regulation of their products. My favorite: former Philip Morris CEO Joseph Cullman, when asked about smoking’s link to low-birthweight babies, saying “some women prefer having smaller babies.”

Watch it here.

Hmph!   I just read on the OMB/OIRA website that they have completed their review of Labor Secretary Chao’s proposal to change the way that OSHA and MSHA assess workers’ risk of health hazards.  The OIRA website notice says their review was completed on August 25, and it was approved “consistent with change.” 

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Hazards magazine, a UK-based publication dedicated to occupational health, has just published a piece by David Michaels about how product defense tactics harm workers. Much of David’s book, Doubt is Their Product, focuses on substances whose dangers are particularly evident in the workplace, including asbestos, benzene lead, aromatic amines (dyes and rubber chemicals that cause bladder cancer), beryllium, chromium 6, diacetyl, and ergonomic hazards.

This latest piece, “Spin Cycle,” gives a good overview of how product defense firms have tried to prevent regulation of several specific workplace hazards in the U.S., and notes that standards set (or not set) in this country often have international repercussions. Hazards also provides sidebars on manganese, benzene, beryllium, and non-binding ACGIH standards.

Following The Pump Handle’s July 8 post “Secret Rule on OSHA Risk Assessment” (and July 10 here), a front-page Washington Post article provides more details on the Bush Administration’s plan to “reform” the system used by OSHA and MSHA to assess workers’ risk from toxic materials.  In U.S. Rushes to Change Workplace Toxin Rules, Post reporter Carol Leonnig obtained a draft copy of the proposed rule, which would direct the risk assessment assumptions and procedures used by MSHA and OSHA when developing regulations to protect workers health hazards.  Leonnig reports that Bush appointee, lawyer and “ethics advisor” Deborah Misir in DOL’s Office of Policy worked with a contractor to develop the new risk asssessment plan, intentionally leaving career scientists out of the process.

Well, well, it’s the same old playbook for the Bush Administration: Leave out the career staff who know most about the topic, assign a political appointee with no expertise to manage the process, and pay a hand-selected contractor to do the work.  That would be bad enough, but it gets worse.

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Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) are demanding answers from Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on her mysterious proposed rule on risk assessment.  I reported earlier this week that the Secretary’s office sent a proposed rule to OMB on July 7 entitled “Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks.”  Although this proposal might sound innocuous, past experience at so-called “regulatory reform” of risk assessment tells us to be very wary of plans to “improve” the risk assessment process.  In layman’s terms, it means workers’ health gets screwed. 

Kennedy and Miller’s letter to Secretary Chao asks for a briefing within a week about the proposed regulation, and asks for:

  • a copy of the proposed rule
  • the legal authority under which the Department expects to promulgate this regulation
  • the reason that this proposed rule was not listed in the Department’s Regulatory Agenda (which was published in May 2008 )

A screenshot of OMB’s webpage on which this proposed rule appears is here.

Thanks to the Senator and Congresman for taking their oversight responsibilities seriously.


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