WASHINGTON — A deal is near on legislation that would ban the use of asbestos, a fibrous mineral that's often used in brake linings, gaskets, cement products and even yarns and threads imported into the country despite its deadly health risks.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a leading advocate of the ban, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Tuesday that they were within a week or two of wrapping up a compromise that also would authorize $50 million in research to combat the health effects that have killed as many as 231,000 people since 1980 and could claim at least that many more by 2040.
Some of the research money also could go toward identifying the risks of inhaling naturally occurring asbestos, which can be found in underground seams that are more common in the vicinity of earthquake fault lines. Construction equipment and travel on unpaved roads can send the mineral into the air.
The agreement was disclosed at a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That panel's chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., joined Murray in introducing the bill earlier this year.
Boxer said that despite the well-established health threats of asbestos, the use of it was rising worldwide.
"World production of asbestos actually increased in 2005, from 2.36 million metric tons in 2004 to 2.4 million metric tons in 2005," she said. While the last U.S. mine closed in 2002, Boxer said, 2,530 metric tons were imported into the country in 2005, along with 90,000 metric tons of products that contain it.
About 40 countries ban asbestos. Alternative products already are on the market in the United States. But the substance still is used by some of the 16 or so U.S. plants that produce chlorine. Under the compromise that Murray and Isakson are finalizing, those manufacturers would get waivers for up to three years to retool.
"We've got it about worked out," Isakson declared.
The House of Representatives would have to take up the issue next.
The legacy of the widespread use of asbestos remains.
David Weissman, the director of the respiratory-disease studies division of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said deaths from a type of cancer called mesothelioma — just one of the health problems associated with asbestos — still were increasing.
This is largely the result of the long lag time between exposure to asbestos and the onset of the disease, he said.
Another component of the bill is a campaign to better inform the public about asbestos and its health risks.