Wednesday, November 12, 2003

FLASH! Auto Mechanics: Don't Worry, Be Happy. Asbestos is Safe.

Another in a continuing series on lies and lying liars who are trying to kill workers.......

(This story has been flashing through my e-mail for a couple of weeks, but like a faint memory of a bad dream, I've avoided reading it...until now)

True or false: Asbestos is still used in this country.

While Confined Space readers would get the correct answer to this question, most Americans would probably say "false."
They are wrong. Although the major car makers say they no longer use asbestos, the brakes on many older cars contain the fibers. More than $124 million worth of asbestos brake material was imported into the United States last year. Thus, the potential danger will exist for decades as replacement brakes containing asbestos continue to be put on vehicles.

The Post-Dispatch talked to about two dozen St. Louis mechanics or garage managers. All but two said that asbestos had been banned and is no longer in brakes.
A little background. Not too long after I began working at AFSCME over 20 years ago, EPA (Reagan's EPA) came out with the "Gold Book," and accompanying videos describing the dangers of working with asbestos-containing brake linings and ways to prevent exposure. We invited in for demonstrations several manufacturers of equipment that encased the wheels and vacuumed up the dust while mechanics worked on the brake linings through a glove bag. Pretty nifty, considering we couldn't get rid of the asbestos.

Fast forward 17 years. Fearing lawsuits from workers or home mechanics made ill by asbestos in brake linings, industry lawyers are claiming that working with asbestos-containing brake linings is perfectly safe.

Yes, you read that right. The lawfirm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has petitioned "the Environmental Protection Agency to stop distributing warning booklets, posters and videotapes that give mechanics guidance on the need to protect themselves from asbestos."
The main target in their petition is a thin gold-colored EPA pamphlet titled "Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics." Tens of thousands of copies of the Gold Book and other asbestos warning material have been distributed to schools, garages, auto dealers and unions since they were first published 17 years ago.

For two years in the mid-'80s, the EPA and asbestos experts from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration gathered extensive research on exposure to mechanics from leading government and civilian scientists.

The petition says that the EPA has it all wrong and that brake repair work is safe.

"The continuing availability of the Gold Book, and its alarmist and inflammatory tone continues to hinder a fair-minded assessment of the hazards, if any, imposed to users of asbestos-containing friction products," the petition states.
I find this astonishing. One of the most hotly debated issues in Congress lately has been asbestos compensation legislation which is seeking to rescue firms from inherited asbestos liability. And the origin of that liability was the fact that asbestos companies had covered up the hazards of the material for decades. And what are they basing this piece of garbage on?
The lawyers took their action under an obscure law passed in 2001 called the Data Quality Act. It demands that government agencies work with the White House's Office of Management and Budget to establish a process that permits "affected persons" to challenge information gathered and disseminated by the government.
The Data Quality Act was yet another effort by business-backed right-wing, Republicans to "to ensure accountability to the taxpayer." As long as the taxpayer isn't inhaling asbestos fibers.

The fear, of course, was that the Act would be used to undermine workplace safety and and environmental protections. And as with most of the "good ideas" of this Congress and this Administration, our worst fears are generally exceeded.

OSHA is supposed to enforce regulations protecting workers from exposure to asbestos, but the agency hasn't been much help.
An examination by the Post-Dispatch of 31 years of OSHA inspection records shows that nationwide, fewer then ten gas stations a year had been cited for asbestos problems.

Richard Fairfax, OSHA's director of enforcement, said in a telephone interview that OSHA does not have a national program on asbestos exposure.

"I know we've done sampling. Going through the old inspection reports I found a couple that I did," Fairfax said. When asked when his were done, he answered: "A long time ago. In the '70s."

In 20 phone calls to various OSHA regional offices and some of the states designated to do their own OSHA inspections, the Post-Dispatch found no one who could recall the last time they'd actually tested for asbestos in a gas station or garage.

"Most of the operations are small businesses and do not have a lot of employees. Our targeting system is geared at employers with 40 or more workers," Fairfax said.
Senator Patty Murray, who has introduced a bill to ban asbestos completely, has sent a letter to EPA urging them to reject the petition. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has also sent a letter signed by five Congressmen to EPA and OSHA strongly opposing the petition.

The "funny" thing is that the company behind the lawfirm's petition is too embarrassed to allow the lawfirm to reveal its name. Personally, I can't blame them, although according to OMB Watch, this failure to take responsibility may present a legal problem:
It should be noted that it is unclear for who or for what specific reason this law firm has filed this petition. Under the EPA’s data quality guidelines, requestors seeking a correction of information must explain how they are affected by dissemination of the information. Nowhere in the petition does Morgan, Lewis & Bockius establish that they are an affected party. EPA would be well within the guidelines to simply reject the petition on these grounds.
The Tullhoma News (Tennessee) sums it up well
Even in this cynical age, when legislators exhibit greater concern for the financial health of polluters than for the physical well-being of their workers, the law firm's actions display a level of misanthropic malevolence rarely seen outside the tobacco industry. Scientific evidence gathered over the past 17 years confirms the deadly results of inhaling asbestos fibers. Federal and state governments should be doing more, not less, to warn and protect workers.
"Misanthropic malevolence." I like that.

Or, as my friend said below: A level of despicableness beyond imagining.


More information on the hazards of asbestos in brake linings can be found here.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from three years ago describing the extent of asbestos contamination in auto repair shops can be found here.