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Asbestos in America

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Jen with Senator Ed Markey. | Conor Cahill

While the US has not banned the use of asbestos, its dangers are well known and it has a long history of regulations regarding its use and levels of allowable exposure.

Anthropologist and attorney Jen Wagner’s first fellowship experience with asbestos, as a 2014-15 Congressional Fellow in the office of Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), involved her efforts to have the Senate adopt a resolution authored by the senator to designate the first week of April 2015 as "National Asbestos Awareness Week." In conjunction with that, she encouraged the office of the U.S. Surgeon General to release a warning statement marking the occasion.

Last spring in follow-up to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 which requires schools to conduct regular inspections of asbestos-containing areas, Wagner  contributed to a federal inquiry led by Sens. Markey and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “As implementation of this law approaches the thirty year mark, the extent of asbestos hazards remaining in schools across the nation remains largely unknown,” the senators wrote in their letter to 50 state governors.

“Our office realized that the letters were needed after conducting research and seeing that data weren't available to answer our questions,” said Wagner. With feedback from the Environmental Protection Agency, state officials, and advocacy groups, she helped draft questions for the letter.

For a June hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, Wagner helped draft questions for Sen. Markey to ask of representatives of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about asbestos. (His remarks begin at the 1:34 minute mark.)

Wagner pointed out that: “This turned out to be quite important, as asbestos was found in certain crayons and toys. A report was issued shortly after the hearing, which led to my working with Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) office to write letters to retailers urging them to cease sale of the toys and to the CPSC” urging them to take certain actions.

Based on 20 responses to the letter to governors, Senator Markey’s office released a report on December 6, “Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools.” The report calls state efforts to monitor and remediate asbestos in schools “woefully insufficient.” While it remains difficult to assess the scope of asbestos hazards, more than two-thirds of respondents reported having schools that contain asbestos, most of which is unabated.

The report concludes: “The public deserves access to information about where asbestos can be found in products, school buildings, and elsewhere to empower the public to avoid preventable asbestos exposures…. Continued research and outreach is needed to improve public awareness of the danger of asbestos exposure.”

“While asbestos oversight is a very complex regulatory area, my administrative law background helped me tremendously,” said Wagner. “This was a valuable learning experience on how federal oversight projects are handled and on intricate political dynamics. All of this took place within the broader context of US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform, as asbestos is a glaring example of how TSCA is broken, and the Senate just reached a deal on TSCA (evening of December 17) before going into recess.”