WASHINGTON - A deal is near on legislation banning the use of asbestos, a fibrous mineral 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 they are 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 health risks of breathing in naturally occurring asbestos, a major concern in places like El Dorado County, Calif., where the mineral can be sent airborne by construction equipment and travel on unpaved roads.
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The agreement was disclosed at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That panel's chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., joined Murray in introducing the ban bill earlier this year.
Boxer said that despite the well-established health threats of asbestos, worldwide use of it is on the rise.
"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. And 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 containing it.
For Murray, Tuesday's hearing was a huge milestone. It was the first time in the six years she has been pressing for the ban that it had reached the full committee, and the first time passage seems within reach.
"It's shocking to me that it has taken six years, and the deaths of several close friends," Murray said afterward.
About 40 other countries now ban asbestos. There are alternative products already on the market in the United States to those still containing it. But asbestos still is used by some of the 16 or so plants that produce chlorine.