As we look into the ways Chicago handles building contaminants, we’ve found people who have been advocating for victims of toxic pollutants for years—like Linda Reinstein.

By Tucker Kelly

EPA worker helps to clear asbestos from demolition (Photo: usacehq/Flickr)

EPA worker helps to clear asbestos from demolition (Photo: usacehq/Flickr)

Hi readers, Tucker Kelly, reporting fellow with City Bureau, here.

As stated in this primer on our multimedia project, a McKinley Park listener of WBEZ’s Curious City asked about demolition of buildings containing pollutants and what effects they have on human and environmental health. In partnership with Curious City, reporting fellows Manny Ramos, Jeremy Borden and I are analyzing data, tracking down leads and synthesizing our findings. We will unveil not only the answers we find to the McKinley Park resident’s query, but also the processes we used to report the story and the questions we asked along the way.

My question: When people and the environment are affected by pollutants, what have they done about it?

The answers: advocate, litigate and legislate.

Twice while seeking an answer to this question I was referred to Los Angeles area-based Linda Reinstein, co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, who has been active on all three fronts for over a decade.

The first ban of materials containing asbestos went into effect in 1973. A series of bans on various asbestos-containing materials followed. The last major ban went into effect in 1989, but was vacated in 1991, allowing the continued manufacture and imports of previously banned asbestos-containing materials.

“Shaping policy is glacially slow. I’ve been working on passing [a bill] for 14 years with many others who have come before me and work with me still today. So, it’s not a new concept to ban asbestos. Over 60 other countries have done that. The U.S. has not,” Reinstein, 61, tells me in a phone interview.

Reinstein and her organization have been working on crafting and passing a bill named after her late husband, Alan, who died from mesothelioma-related complications shortly after they founded the ADAO.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who sits on the Committee of Environmental and Public Works, co-sponsored the latest iteration of an ADAO-crafted bill, which was introduced November 2. The bill would enable the EPA to ban asbestos use and imports within 18 months of its passage, unlike the current seven-year review cycle, according to the ADAO. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is a co-sponsor.

“I found out … that Senator Merkley would champion the bill, and I worked 24/7, pulled out every magic trick in my little black case, and we got seven senators to co-sponsor it and eight organizations to lend their support,” Reinstein says. Those organizations include the American Health Organization, the Center for Asbestos Related Diseases in Libby, Montana, and Brazil’s Association of People Exposed to Asbestos.

From Linda’s article, “Shattered: Remembering the Love and Light of Our Life, Alan Reinstein”

From Linda’s article, “Shattered: Remembering the Love and Light of Our Life, Alan Reinstein”

“Alan said something to me a few weeks before he died: ‘ADAO is probably too late for me. I probably won’t see a ban, but promise me you’ll never give up,’” Reinstein recounts. “We kind of chuckled. He knew how tenacious I am. He looked at me and he said, ‘I probably don’t have to say that, but please don’t give up.’”

For Reinstein, the ban is about more than just Alan. Over 200 anti-asbestos advocates have shared their stories on her organization’s website.

“I don’t just tell my story, I tell the story of hundreds of thousands of Alans,” she says.

The last answer I’ve discovered thus far to my original question: Those who’ve lost a loved one to a disease caused by a toxic pollutant restlessly seek solace. They do so through advocacy and sharing stories of the person who passed.

“We come together knowing sharing truly makes us stronger,” Reinstein says. “It’s also very important that lawmakers and the media hear our stories because we can turn a statistic into a meaningful story that someone can feel, share and remember, because otherwise, we’re just a number. I’m not going to let asbestos turn me, my family, Alan or anyone into just a number.”

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