A recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) revealed that imports of asbestos into the U.S. skyrocketed between July and August. The organizations collaborated to collect and analyze federal data on imported goods, and discovered asbestos imports had risen by 2,000 percent. While 13 metric tons of asbestos had been brought into the U.S. in July, there was a disturbing increase to 272 metric tons (or 600,000 pounds) in August.
This figure suggests that companies which use asbestos are not worried that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Trump will ban the hazardous carcinogen. Consumers and health advocates have been demanding such a ban for decades, since asbestos has long been known to cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of ADAO, expressed her disgust at the recent imports, saying, “It is appalling that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the U.S. not only fails to ban asbestos, but allows imports to increase.”
Big Business in Bed with the White House
Under the Obama Administration, there was a clear path to an asbestos ban when the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was revised to allow the EPA greater control over prohibiting dangerous materials. When Trump was elected, both the asbestos ban and the stated purpose of the TSCA were put in serious jeopardy.
Asbestos is used in 1 type of manufacturing in the United States, the chlor-alkali industry. These companies make diaphragms used in producing sodium chloride and chlorine. The American Chemical Council, an industry lobbying group, has been pushing the Trump administration to allow asbestos to continue its use in manufacturing.
Meanwhile, the EPA is supposed to make a ruling about asbestos as 1 of the first 10 substances it reviews under the new TSCA. This recent increase in the importation of asbestos implies Trump’s EPA will determine the carcinogen does not cause harm and should not be banned.
Asbestos mining in the U.S. ended in 2002, and since then the chlor-alkali industry has relied on imported asbestos, primarily from Russia. While 341 metric tons of asbestos were brought to the United States last year, that figure has grown to 555 metric tons so far this year, meaning asbestos imports will likely double.
It only takes a single asbestos fiber to cause the incurable cancer mesothelioma; and with over 1 million new pounds of it coming into the U.S. in 2018 alone, the risks to public health are astronomical.
Trump’s EPA Protecting Profits before People
The continued use of asbestos has clear and deadly consequences. Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistics warn that 15,000 Americans die every year due to asbestos exposure, yet this number may be a gross underestimate.
According to more recent research by Jukka Talaka, president of the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), the figure could be as high as 40,000 people. This means than annually, asbestos takes the same number of American lives as breast cancer or car accidents.
Despite the death toll, Trump’s EPA is positioning to allow for new uses of asbestos. The EPA’s current plan suggests that companies would be allowed to make new use proposals and give the EPA at least 90 days to review their plans before importing or using asbestos. After this process, the EPA would decide if the new use was allowable.
This dangerous option is especially problematic since the EPA’s evaluation process does not involve examining research on asbestos that has been known for decades, including its carcinogenic properties. Yet this flat-out refusal to accept the facts echoes the claim Trump made in his book The Art of the Comeback, in which he famously wrote that the dangers of asbestos were a story devised by the mob.
Should Americans be angry? Yes. As EWG President Ken Cook notes:
“When most people learn that asbestos remains legal even after it’s claimed the lives of countless Americans, they’re shocked. And when the public finds out the Trump administration is actively working to keep it legal, they are furious.”
Playing Russian Roulette with Americans’ Health
Trump’s support of asbestos also has connections to his ties in Russia. Earlier this year, EWG and ADAO discovered an asbestos manufacturer in Russia that had added a stamp of Donald Trump's face to its label. The company's Facebook page bragged:
“He supported the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who stated that his agency would no longer deal with negative effects potentially derived from products containing asbestos. Donald Trump supported a specialist and called asbestos ‘100% safe after application.”
Cook makes the destructive implications of these business ties clear, saying:
“Helping Putin and Russian oligarchs amass fortunes by selling a product that kills thousands each year should never be the role of a U.S. president or the EPA, but this is the Trump administration. Russia’s interests are Trump’s interests, and any clear-eyed American knows it.”
Holding out Hope for a Ban
Even though there seems to be little hope for an asbestos ban under the current administration, recent bans in other countries demonstrate that public and political pressure can get results. While the U.S. used to buy some of its asbestos from Brazil, that country has recently enacted an asbestos ban.
Canada will also ban asbestos at the end of this year, marking a major policy change. Over the past several decades, Canada has been an asbestos promoter and producer, mining 63 million tons of asbestos every year. Canadian officials also worked to prevent international bodies from putting restrictions on asbestos imports and exports.
Over the past several years, however, it became evident that asbestos was a hazard for Canadian workers, taking 2,000 lives annually. While the ban is just 1 step on a longer road, it is an important shift toward creating a healthier environment.
Asbestos imports are on the increase, yet these stories give us hope that the United States can have a change of leadership and a change of heart. With only a few days until the midterm elections, and 2 years until presidential election in 2020, the stakes for Americans’ health have never been clearer.