Comprehensive treatment of asbestos in all its forms and in all environs got a big push forward Sunday night after the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved the asbestos bill. The committee's approval means that the bill will have the support of the coalition when it goes to the Knesset floor for a vote. The Environmental Protection Ministry-crafted bill will, for the first time, regulate the dealing with asbestos from top to bottom and will put aside funds for cleanup and treatment of crumbling asbestos. The ministry announced the committee's decision on Monday. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that can cause asbestosis (scarring of the lungs resulting in loss of lung function that often progresses to disability and to death); mesothelioma (cancer affecting the membranes lining the lungs and abdomen); lung cancer; and cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, according to a US Department of Labor fact sheet. Mesothelioma results specifically from asbestos. While the prevailing belief used to be that only prolonged exposure made one sick, the current belief is that asbestos fibers that enter the air can cause serious damage in far less exposure time. According to the Organization for Environment and Life in Nahariya, as of 2005, there were about 600 cases in Israel of people getting sick from asbestos exposure. An increasing number of cases have been discovered in recent years, according to the organization's research. According to the ministry, the Acre district has the second-highest rate of mesothelioma in the world. For 45 years until 1997, the Itnit factory in the area produced asbestos cement. Moreover, crumbling leftovers were used to pave roads, walkways and private paths throughout the area. Thus, many more people than just the factory workers were exposed to asbestos for many years. Part of the bill proposes specific funds to clean up the Western Galilee area from the ministry's Clean-Up Fund. The bill would also prevent the use of asbestos in new construction and gradually remove crumbling asbestos. As of now, Asbestos is neither made in Israel nor imported, according to the ministry. Since asbestos often starts to crumble and disperse in the air during construction work where asbestos cement and other asbestos-containing products are found, the bill would require a license to remove or deal with asbestos. The bill also lays out guidelines for working with asbestos and its removal. The bill would also give the ministry the authority to enforce proper removal and treatment of asbestos. There are laws dating back to the early 1980s that regulate asbestos in terms of workers' hazard, but the new bill goes beyond that. The bill would unify treatment of the issue under one law. Moreover, the bill approaches the issue from an environmental perspective, rather than merely a labor one. Many other countries, including the US, already have comprehensive legislation regulating asbestos use. Orit Reich, founder and director of the Organization for Environment and Life, praised the committee's approval of the bill. Reich fought a 15-year battle to raise awareness to the plight in the Western Galilee and secure funds to remove the crumbling asbestos embedded in the ground. Last year, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the ministry for her efforts, and in 2007 she won a Life and Environment Green Globe. "The bill is a product of a more than 10-year-old public battle to raise awareness to the danger of asbestos, which was fought by the Organization for Environment and Life in Nahariya and the Western Galilee," Reich told The Jerusalem Post via e-mail. "The bill is the result of a harsh and continuing reality over the last 50 years of an environmental disaster that emerged from the production of asbestos and its distribution throughout the area during the time it was manufactured," she said. "The Environmental Protection Ministry took it upon itself to put an end to the problem through legislation and cleaning up Nahariya and the Western Galilee." Reich warned against waiting to act until the law was passed. "It must not be forgotten that the legislative process is long," she said, "and in the meantime, it is imperative to act in accordance with the criteria that were established [by the bill] to protect the populace at risk, and not to wait for the final approval of the bill." Reich praised Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and his team for their "decisiveness in acting to clean up the North and remove the public's exposure to pollution."