Asbestos cleanup bill approved by committee

Comprehensivetreatment of asbestos in all its forms and in all environs got a bigpush forward Sunday night after the Ministerial Committee onLegislation approved the asbestos bill. The committee's approval meansthat the bill will have the support of the coalition when it goes tothe Knesset floor for a vote.

TheEnvironmental Protection Ministry-crafted bill will, for the firsttime, regulate the dealing with asbestos from top to bottom and willput aside funds for cleanup and treatment of crumbling asbestos. Theministry 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 oftenprogresses to disability and to death); mesothelioma (cancer affectingthe membranes lining the lungs and abdomen); lung cancer; and cancersof the esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, according to a USDepartment of Labor fact sheet. Mesothelioma results specifically fromasbestos.

While the prevailing belief used to be that only prolongedexposure made one sick, the current belief is that asbestos fibers thatenter the air can cause serious damage in far less exposure time.

According to the Organization for Environment andLife in Nahariya, as of 2005, there were about 600 cases in Israel ofpeople getting sick from asbestos exposure. An increasing number ofcases have been discovered in recent years, according to theorganization's research.

According to the ministry, the Acre district has thesecond-highest rate of mesothelioma in the world. For 45 years until1997, the Itnit factory in the area produced asbestos cement. Moreover,crumbling leftovers were used to pave roads, walkways and private pathsthroughout the area. Thus, many more people than just the factoryworkers were exposed to asbestos for many years.

Part of the bill proposes specific funds to cleanup the Western Galilee area from the ministry's Clean-Up Fund. The billwould also prevent the use of asbestos in new construction andgradually 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 airduring construction work where asbestos cement and otherasbestos-containing products are found, the bill would require alicense to remove or deal with asbestos.

The bill also lays out guidelines for working with asbestos andits removal. The bill would also give the ministry the authority toenforce proper removal and treatment of asbestos.

There are laws dating back to the early 1980s that regulateasbestos in terms of workers' hazard, but the new bill goes beyondthat.

The bill would unify treatment of the issue under one law.Moreover, the bill approaches the issue from an environmentalperspective, rather than merely a labor one. Many other countries,including the US, already have comprehensive legislation regulatingasbestos use.

Orit Reich, founder and director of the Organization forEnvironment and Life, praised the committee's approval of the bill.Reich fought a 15-year battle to raise awareness to the plight in theWestern Galilee and secure funds to remove the crumbling asbestosembedded in the ground. Last year, she was honored with a LifetimeAchievement Award by the ministry for her efforts, and in 2007 she wona Life and Environment Green Globe.

"The bill is a product of a more than 10-year-old public battleto raise awareness to the danger of asbestos, which was fought by theOrganization for Environment and Life in Nahariya and the WesternGalilee," Reich told The Jerusalem Post via e-mail.

"The bill is the result of a harsh and continuing reality overthe last 50 years of an environmental disaster that emerged from theproduction of asbestos and its distribution throughout the area duringthe time it was manufactured," she said. "The Environmental ProtectionMinistry took it upon itself to put an end to the problem throughlegislation 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 accordancewith the criteria that were established [by the bill] to protect thepopulace at risk, and not to wait for the final approval of the bill."

Reich praised Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan andhis team for their "decisiveness in acting to clean up the North andremove the public's exposure to pollution."