Asbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight

Democrats and Republicans are each accusing the other of holding up a bill to ban asbestos that had been expected to pass with little controversy this week.

The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act exited committee with just one no vote and was expected to sail through the voting process without amendments.

But Democratic aides on the Energy and Commerce Committee say that progress has stalled as GOP lawmakers object to a provision that assures the legislation would have no impact on ongoing litigation over injuries tied to use of talcum powder.

“Everyone should be able to support a ban on this known carcinogen, which has no place in our consumer products or processes. More than 40,000 Americans die every year from asbestos exposure, but Republicans are willing to look the other way,” Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

“Republicans walked away from this opportunity to ban asbestos merely over language that prevents shutting the courtroom door. This raises serious questions about the sincerity of their intentions.”

Asbestos, tied to lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, is still used in a surprising number of products despite its dangers, largely within the automotive sector along with other industrial uses. 

The bill bars the production, use and importation of asbestos, implementing a ban on the substance within a year of its passage, with a few narrow exceptions.

The legislation would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act, which doesn’t deal with the cosmetic uses of asbestos being challenged in court.

A number of women have waged successful legal battles arguing their ovarian cancer was linked to the use of asbestos-laced baby powder.

Democratic aides say they added the so-called savings clause “to make sure nothing in the bill would block the minority women who are primarily bringing suits over harm from cosmetic talc.”

Republicans, however, say the addition of the clause is another example of trial lawyers holding up liability protections that give businesses certainty.

“What does this new language do? As you can probably guess, it creates questions about the intent of the law that could lead to uncertainty in interpretation and implementation of the law. This, in turn, could lead to litigation,” the minority wrote in a blog post.

The legislation moved ahead in Congress after the Environmental Protection Agency moved last year to restrict asbestos but stopped short of banning it outright.

—Updated at 5:52 p.m.

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