United States and Russia Among G20 Nations That Have Failed to Ban Asbestos

by Sokolove Law

The delightful list of political intrigue that has emerged from the Putin-Trump love-hate relationship just keeps growing. We can now add asbestos to the long string of plot twists fit for a political thriller, or perhaps a horror film. Yet another characteristic the 2 leaders have in common is their blatant willingness to endanger their workers. Sadly, they’re not alone.

One disturbing detail that emerged from the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg is that of the 20 countries that form this organization, 8 have not banned asbestos. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the West that has not taken such protective action. Even more important to note, though perhaps not entirely surprising, is that Russia is a key producer and exporter of 1 type of asbestos used primarily in construction.

Linda Reinstien, the CEO and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), notes that “Each year, Russia mines a million tons of white chrysotile asbestos, and churns out prolific amounts of propaganda claiming that chrysotile is the ‘safe kind’ of asbestos.”

According to the Occupation Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), “There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.” Of course, Putin and Trump are equally happy to ignore scientific evidence that points to that fact. Given that these men are political and economic bedfellows, Americans should take heed.

In Russia, There Is Even a National Asbestos Day (And It’s Not the Good Kind)

As Reinstien astutely observes, Putin oversees a tidy little pro-asbestos propaganda campaign: “Russia has organized the International Chrysotile Association to counter the minerals’ negative reputation and has even instituted a national ‘Chrysotile Appreciation Day,’ where asbestos workers are compelled to claim the carcinogen they work with is safe.”

Also, Russia was 1 of 5 countries that worked to stop the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the UN’s 2017 Prior Informed Consent Regulations. It is the only form of asbestos not on the list, but of course that should not be taken to mean it is any less carcinogenic. While the materials on this list are not banned from purchase or sale, countries that export these products have to explain their risks to buyers.

Notably, Trump has been sued by workers at 1 of his construction sites due to exposure to high levels of asbestos, among other unsafe conditions. Even though asbestos may kill 15,000 Americans yearly, the United States continues to buy this hazardous material. Last year, the U.S. also purchased asbestos from Russia.

Clear and Present Danger

Asbestos was used in a wide variety of construction materials in the United States through the late 1970s. Since then, the use of asbestos has been greatly reduced due to safety concerns. However, people who work in construction and the renovation of buildings can be at high risk of exposure. If asbestos is disturbed, such as when demolishing or remodeling an older structure, asbestos fibers are released into the air.

These fibers are lethal when inhaled, and can cause terminal illnesses such as the deadly cancer mesothelioma. Additionally, the family members of individuals who work around asbestos can also be at high risk for the disease. Because asbestos fibers can stick to clothing, it’s easy for workers to bring them home with them if their garments are not properly cleaned.

OSHA requires that employers provide protective equipment to workers who may be exposed, and to install mechanisms to reduce fibers in the air. Employers must also monitor levels of asbestos exposure for all workers, and have them evaluated by doctors if workers are exposed beyond the legal limit. OSHA is very clear about the dangers posed by asbestos: “Epidemiologic evidence has increasingly shown that all asbestos fiber types, including the most commonly used form of asbestos, chrysotile, causes mesothelioma in humans.”

Naturally this well-established scientific information has been disregarded by both Trump and Putin. But then again, should we really be surprised? 

If All Else Fails, Blame the Mob

On top of Trump blatantly ignoring evidence to the contrary, he has also repeatedly claimed that asbestos is safe. In a now infamous tweet from 2012, he speculated that asbestos could have saved the World Trade Center, if only the carcinogenic substance had not been replaced by other materials. Trump has also claimed that the efforts to take asbestos out of buildings were in fact a conspiracy led by the Mafia.

Sadly, not all asbestos had been removed from the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse. Many first responders have paid the price for that fact. While it can often take 20 to 50 years to develop mesothelioma, just 5 years after 9/11, 2 individuals who worked at the WTC site died from the disease due to heavy asbestos exposure.

Of course, these fatalities may be just the beginning of a much larger epidemic. One study suggests that 70 percent of those who worked at the WTC site had respiratory problems due to their heroic efforts. The full extent of the toll on their bodies may not be known for decades, but 1 thing is clear: The asbestos industry will be sure to find other scapegoats for their illnesses.

Environmental Protection Agency No More

With Scott Pruitt heading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is precious little hope that the United States will soon join the 12 countries in the G20 that ban asbestos. Pruitt has demonstrated clear reluctance to regulate dangerous chemicals, and is somehow “undecided” about the risks that asbestos poses to workers and the general public.

The battle to ban asbestos has always been hard-fought by the asbestos industry, so this is indeed a continuation of a much longer convoluted corporate tale. While the EPA succeeded in banning asbestos-containing products in 1989, that verdict was overturned only 2 years later, following a suit filed by company that manufactured asbestos-containing products. Now that Trump has “frienemies” (namely, Vladmir Putin) who sponsor a national asbestos day, it is likely that the United States will continue to import more Russian-mined asbestos in the near future. 

The Data Is in, the President Is Out to (a Corporate-Sponsored) Lunch

The trifecta of Trump, Pruitt, and Putin signals that American workers should take heed. Their safety is firmly in their own hands, as both workplace and consumer protection regulations continue to be whittled down to toothpick proportions. While Trump and Putin celebrate capitalism, corporations, and carcinogens, Americans must continue to make their voices heard in favor of workplace protections. Petitions, e-mails, and phone calls to Congress all have their needed place in this protest, though perhaps the best occasion will be at the ballot box in a year and a half.

We would like to be more optimistic, to think that if the President sat down for a chat with the good people at OSHA, he might have his views swayed in favor of citizens and scientific knowledge. But wait. They might be in league with the Mafia.

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