Asbestos bill fails to provide promised solution

The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) has harshly criticized the latest version of the asbestos trust fund proposal, introduced in the Senate by co-sponsors Arlen Specter, (R-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

"For five years, MARF has been drawing attention to the national tragedy of asbestos and calling for a constructive solution," said MARF Executive Director Chris Hahn. "We have done what we can to jumpstart research aimed at curing asbestos' most lethal cancer, meso; we have established that -- with an adequate commitment of resources -- effective treatments for the disease could be developed; and we have been calling on the federal government and the companies responsible for causing the tragedy to partner with us in funding the research needed to stop it."

At first, it might appear that the proposed trust fund bill would do just that. In his statement accompanying the bill's introduction, Senator Leahy acknowledges "the ravages of disease caused by asbestos" and "the devastating damage it has wreaked." He also acknowledges that "asbestos is among the most lethal substances ever to be widely used in the workplace" and that "between 1940 and 1980, more than 27.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos on the job, and nearly 19 million of them had high levels of exposure over long periods of time."

Senator Leahy even describes the bill as intended "to address the serious problem of asbestos-related disease" and to offer a "solution." But according to MARF, the proposed bill does anything but. Hahn says, "For all those who are now sick, for the 27.5 million U.S. workers Senator Leahy refers to who are already at risk, and for the millions more Americans who are and will be exposed to all the asbestos now contaminating our environment, a 'solution' means developing effective treatments. We have the resources."

Indeed, the asbestos bill will earmark $140 billion into a trust fund over the next thirty years, and will exempt the corporations responsible for the tragedy from all further liability, adding billions to their bottom lines. But it allocates only a trivial amount to research aimed at curing meso or other asbestos-related diseases. Says Hahn, merely aiming to "compensate" someone after they or their loved one contracts what is usually a meso death sentence is no "solution"; it is a cruel betrayal.

Meso patients agree. Bret Williams practices community medicine in rural North Carolina. He developed meso from using a common soil fertilizer contaminated with asbestos. It is not clear if he would even be eligible to recover under the fund as he is one of many meso patients with non- occupational asbestos exposure. "What really sickens me," he says, "is our elected officials' continued failure to adequately fund research. My wife, my kids, and I want a cure much more than we want money. And what about future meso patients? Are they going to be happy that money was sitting around in a trust fund to 'compensate' them after they get this death sentence, when it could have been used in the meantime to develop life-saving treatments?"

Billy Speicher was exposed to asbestos while working on airplanes in the Marines. In January, he stood before Senator Specter, Senator Leahy and the rest of the Senate Judiciary Committee as they considered the asbestos bill and he described his ordeal with meso. A large percentage of meso patients were exposed through military service, and for their sake, and in recognition of their service to the country, he asked the Judiciary Committee to include funding for meso research.

In response, Senator Specter acknowledged the asbestos "occupational health crisis" and the need for a cure for meso. He also pledged to look into federal funding of meso research through his role on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees the National Cancer Institute's $5 billion cancer research budget. So MARF delivered directly to Senator Specter its $30 million per year proposal, developed by MARF's scientific experts, for a National Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Program. In light of the federal government's role in the asbestos tragedy, MARF for the past three years has been advocating a federal appropriation to establish the NMRTP, completely independent of the rancorous debate over the trust fund.

According to MARF's Chris Hahn, "The NMRTP is a finely tuned proposal, that asks for the bare minimum needed to establish a viable meso research program. This $30 million would make a huge impact in advancing effective treatments, but compared to the $140 billion in the trust fund, and compared to what the government designates for other cancers, it is tiny. Surely $30 million a year is not too much to ask to stop further suffering and death from 'the most lethal substances ever to be widely used in the workplace'."

MARF's letter to Senator Specter and its proposal for the NMRTP are publicly accessible at http://www.marf.org/cdmrp.htm.

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