A Senate committee on July 31 approved legislation to ban most uses of asbestos, but included an exemption for some chlor-alkali plants. 

Members of the Environment & Public Works Committee were unanimous in their support of the bill, S. 742. The measure would prohibit commercial distribution of materials that contain cancer-causing asbestos.

The ban, however, would not apply to existing chlor-alkali plants that use asbestos diaphragms to separate chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen. Few alternatives to asbestos exist, according to the chemical industry, which sought the exemption in the bill.

"We are encouraged by the unanimous support in the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee for legislation that will allow the chlor-alkali industry to continue to safely use asbestos," says Robert J. Simon, managing director of the American Chemistry Council's Chlorine Chemistry Division.

Under S. 742, EPA would regularly review the chlor-alkali industry's exemption. The agency could revoke the exemption if it finds that use of the asbestos diaphragms poses an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

The bill would also provide exemptions to the military and NASA, allowing them to continue to use asbestos for critical functions.

EPA attempted to phase out nearly all asbestos-containing products in 1989, but a federal appeals court threw out the regulation in 1991. The court said EPA did not give enough consideration to alternative ways to control asbestos exposure that would be less burdensome on industry than a ban.

S. 742, which would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act, next goes to the full Senate for consideration.

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