Asbestos warning finally issued by Surgeon General, or was it?

by Andrew Schneider on September 16, 2009

After years of cajoling from the U.S. Senate and pleading from health activists, the Office of the Surgeon General finally warned the public of the dangers of asbestos.

asbestos warningBack in April, then-acting Surgeon General Steven Galson issued a statement about the deadly fiber and the illness it causes.

It wasn’t literature. Just 341 words explaining the most basic facts about asbestos — where it’s found, how it kills — and urging “every American to become aware of the public health issues of asbestos exposure and the steps they can take to protect their health.”

But did anyone notice?

I checked Google and media search sites and found only one reference to the statement, and that was on the surgeon general’s own Web site.

The most strident voice in the chorus to issue the warning was the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Linda Reinstein,, the group’s Executive Director and Co-Founder said it has taken more than six years to get a surgeon general to embrace asbestos awareness.

Reinstein, whose husband died from an asbestos-caused illness, told me this morning that the warning “is a landmark step to preventing exposure and deaths.”

No one, including, I suspect, Dr. Galson, believed that Americans would read it and rush to see their physicians.

But because tens of thousands of new cases of asbestos-related diseases are being diagnosed every year, any help in informing the public of the potential hazard from the lethal fibers was coveted.

Over the years, letters requesting the warnings were signed by some of the top asbestos-treatment specialists in the country and leading patient advocacy groups.

But the responses during the Bush administrations were always the same – a form letter listing the more important things that the surgeon general was worrying about, such as obesity.

The reality was that the Bush White House – actually Dick Cheney himself – did his best to stifle any and all government discussion of asbestos or its risks.

For two years, at the repeated request of industry lobbyists, Bush’s team pulled every trick it could to ram asbestos tort reform through Congress.

The plan the White House pushed to limit asbestos lawsuits and put government panels in charge of determining who was or wasn’t sick, didn’t pass.

The new surgeon general to be  – Regina Benjamin – was named to the job in July and is awaiting confirmation.

I’ve checked the few public comments that the Alabama family physician has made since being appointed and can’t find anything on asbestos yet.

Even though former top doc Everett Koop didn’t always see it that way, the surgeon general is a largely ceremonial post traditionally used by most administrations to communicate health messages to the public. But the office holder can sometimes make his or her role more meaningful, and America’s nominated top doctor isn’t shy.

But a few lives might be saved if she weighed in now and then on asbestos dangers.  It is especially important because it looks like the chances of a meaningful asbestos ban ever getting passed by the gang on the Hill is way so remote.

Here is a link to the surgeon general’s statement.

Link to statement

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

word2thewyz September 16, 2009 at 18:55

I’m afraid you’re a bit confused about the status of the surgeon general. It’s true that Regina Benjamin was nominated by President Obama in July, but the nomination has not yet been voted on by the Senate (that’s why she hasn’t made many speeches). Until she wins Senate confirmation, she is not the surgeon general, or even the acting surgeon general. She is merely a nominee awaiting confirmation, and cannot take action in any capacity on behalf of the government.

Tom L. in ATL September 17, 2009 at 15:17

Andrew is saying what I’ve been trumpeting for the 8 years of the Bush admin…they shut the asbestos issue down. I’ve been involved in asbestos control industry for more than 25 years…from base-level field work to providing invited congressional sub-committee testimony. I have first hand contact with many that are within the EPA and OSHA structures. Because of the de-emphasis by the Bush administration, outside of handful of people there are very few left within OSHA and EPA that have any real expertise or interest in the asbestos issue…this fallout is without debate. This is not conjecture on my part, it is from fist hand conversations with those in significant management level positions within the agencies. Within the main EPA-Toxics office in DC there is effectively $0 for the issue. There has been movement within EPA on asbestos issues…but it’s been principally reactive…as with Libby, the naturally occurring asbestos (NOA)/asbestos-in-soil issue (CA and elsewhere) and a few other issues. Some the research work to come of these issues (as with NOA/asb in soil) has been good and of interest to the community in which I serve…but we need much more assistance from our regulators and the Congress. We need real updates (and not the gutting of) of regulations like NESHAP (demo/renovation etc.) to reflect the activities of what is going on in today’s workplace (the states have regulated in a hodge podge manner in the absence of the EPA)…a re-visitation and codification of analytical methodologies which are way out of date…put far more time and money into the risk analysis group within EPA (most data they use has nothing to do with today’s exposures)…and further efforts (there are some) to crack down on asbestos scofflaws by EPA and OSHA…not to mention, agency and Congressional support for an asbestos importation and use ban bill!!!

In the defense of some…there are those in the federal agencies that feel hamstrung and want to do more…but there’s no budget money…agency management that was influenced by the Bush admin still have their sharp elbows and stymie these efforts…and the ground swell from the public and the press that got us to the point where we got the regs to better protect people from exposure has long waned. Well, it may have waned in the popular press, but I can tell you there are a few thousand of us in the asbestos control community that deal with workplace situations on a regular basis where this hazard is an omnipresent issue. We endeavor with this public health mission often with little help from the federal agencies…in our professional advocacy to protect workers and help prevent asbestos disease…it often seems as though we’re just about on our own.

It’s because of folks like Andrew and this web page (and his excellent work with the Seattle PI), Linda Reinstein with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), the members of the Environmental Information Association, Inc. (EIA)[and other private groups] that there is any press at all other than the reporting of the handful of enforcements and local dust-ups. Thank you Andrew…you have the guts to tell the truth…and I’m glad to have your back as an industry insider with the facts.

Paul Zygielbaum September 22, 2009 at 12:44

It is not logical to compare asbestos-related diseases to such other health threats as obesity, hypertension, etc. A more rational comparison can be made to anthrax. Both anthrax spores and asbestos are naturally occurring toxins that sicken or kill a fraction of the people who are exposed to them. Both are easily transported and spread, even inadvertently on the clothing of those already exposed. We carefully control one to prevent its dissemination. The other we allow to be imported and to be disseminated with very little control. There’s only one fundamental difference I can see: There are marketable applications for asbestos. So tell me this: If someone were to invent a marketable application for anthrax, would we suddenly deregulate it? Why do we accept over 10,000 deaths per year from asbestos, when the government and many citizens panicked over a few anthrax deaths in the aftermath of 9/11?

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