Chamber ‘Transparency’ Ruse Would Harm Asbestos Victims

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is at it again. In his 2015 State of American Business speech, Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue reheated his well-worn rhetoric decrying regulation and consumer protections, calling for limits on civil justice, “overly lenient” trade and tax policies, and more — which all amount to more corporate giveaways.

It’s clear that Donohue hopes to capitalize on the $35 million the Chamber spent leading up to last November’s elections — dark money from sources that don’t have to be disclosed.

And it’s almost incredible how brazenly he speaks of cashing in: “The Chamber played a significant role in the midterm elections. We have since been meeting with leaders on Capitol Hill. … We will be very clear about what lawmakers in both parties need to do if they hope to earn or keep our support” (emphasis added).

The Chamber and its Institute for Legal Reform have never been friendly to Public Citizen’s idea of civil justice. Though it is still early in this congressional session, the Chamber is already aggressively pushing its anti-justice agenda through those members of Congress for whom it was a benefactor in the midterms.

It was especially appalling to see Donohue’s promotion of the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act as the sole legal reform proposal mentioned by name in his State of American Business speech. This bill, which Donohue listed on the top of the Chamber’s “get done” list, is a one-sided policy that does nothing for asbestos cancer victims — and instead will harm them.

By pushing the FACT Act on behalf of corporations, the Chamber is attempting to stall justice for victims, many of whom have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal disease that typically kills affected individuals only months after diagnosis. Mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers have been so clearly linked to exposure to the dangerous product that trust funds have been set up under Title 11 to facilitate victim compensation when defendants are companies that have filed for bankruptcy.

Though there is no evidence of fraud linked to these trusts, the FACT Act would require personal information of all victims who have filed claims to be retroactively disclosed on publicly available databases.

The unnecessary paperwork that would result from this requirement would delay compensation for victims. And in many instances, justice delayed would be justice denied.

In addition to delaying compensation, the publishing of claimants’ personal information — including portions of their Social Security numbers — would raise huge privacy concerns for asbestos victims.

Given the enormous potential for identity theft, it was galling to hear Donohue pay lip service to data security in his yearly soliloquy. Furthermore, publishing personal information on claimants creates other threats of possible abuse of victims’ asbestos-related disease status by employers, insurance companies or others who might discriminate against these individuals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that roughly 3,000 people continue to die from mesothelioma and asbestosis every year and some experts estimate the death toll is as high as 12,000-15,000 people per year when other types of asbestos-linked diseases and cancers are included. Approximately one-third of the victims are veterans who were exposed while serving our country. Donohue’s arguments of transparency seem tone deaf, as he advocates for procedural delays that would leave staggering health care and funeral bills.

Adding insult to injury by shredding victims’ privacy and exposing them to identity theft and potential discrimination, the Chamber’s push of the FACT Act would compound victims’ stress with worry of what new hazard may befall them in addition to their disease.

Instead of the FACT Act’s misguided push for “transparency” via asbestos trust claim information disclosures, an appropriate transparency standard would ensure that workers and consumers have all the information necessary to limit their potential exposure to the deadly substance. Specifically, companies should publicly disclose their activities related to the manufacture, processing, distribution, sales, importation, transport or storage of asbestos or asbestos-containing products. That’s why Public Citizen supports Sens. Durbin and Markey’s and Reps. DelBene and Green’s Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database Act (READ Act, S. 700/H.R. 2030) which would create an information portal for the public to learn about the many asbestos-containing products that are currently bought and sold in the U.S.A.

The real outrage is the double oppression of asbestos victims, and the real need for transparency is disclosure of past and ongoing asbestos exposures.