Russia is the world’s largest producer of asbestos, mining around 0.69 million metric tons in 2017, and consistently blocking all attempts to ban exports of the deadly mineral fibres. One major Russian mining company has taken to branding its pallets of asbestos filled bags with a seal of Trump’s face along with the words “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States”. In 2017 Brazil, once the biggest exporter of asbestos to the US, banned the fibre product, which now leaves Russia as America’s major source of asbestos.
It’s not surprising that dismay has been voiced by those directly involved with the devastating effects of asbestos exposure. Among those who have raised their concerns are lung disease researchers, asbestos victims support groups, and specialist asbestosis lawyers who work every day with victims and their families suffering with mesothelioma and asbestos-related conditions.
The deadly health risks of asbestos, which can lead to the development of the incurable mesothelioma cancer or debilitating asbestosis disease were first identified more than 100 years ago and are today recognised in the UK, the USA and many developed nations around the world.
While 55 countries – including the UK – have prohibited all use of asbestos, the USA has never implemented a full ban. Despite being classed by the US federal government as a “known carcinogen” and most spray-applied asbestos products banned in the early 1970s, a total ban was challenged and rejected by asbestos industry supporters in 1991.
Decision not to ban new asbestos products outright
The announcement that Donald Trump’s face is to be used as an “endorsement” of asbestos use follows news of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision not to ban new asbestos products outright. The EPA said that, instead, it would evaluate new uses of asbestos using the “best available science”. The Agency has been previously criticised for only investigating a limited number of asbestos-related issues while excluding others such as, asbestos lagged pipework or landfill disposal.
The Russian mining company which produces 450 thousand tons of white asbestos per year – more than a fifth of the world’s chrysotile mineral fibres – has also declared on social media that Trump had previously called asbestos “100 per cent safe after application”. They also thanked the president for supporting the former head of the EPA who had said his agency would “no longer deal with matters related to side effects potentially caused by asbestos”.
Trump and the former EPA chief are not the only individuals to be misguided or misinformed over the potential health risks of white asbestos. Every time asbestos is uncovered at a school, council estate or public building, a statement is invariably issued by the local authorities saying that the type of asbestos is ‘low risk’ and not a danger to the general public.
Barrier against making real progress in reforming attitudes
The idea that white chrysotile asbestos is a ‘low risk’ fibre type was based on UK research carried out between the 1940s and 1960s. Studies found that white asbestos fibres break down more easily into smaller particles and considered less likely to turn cells cancerous. This was because less congested lungs allow the body to more easily clear out the longest fibres. As a result, white asbestos was still in use in the UK for nearly 15 years after the more toxic brown and blue asbestos were banned. Misunderstanding, lack of information or limited asbestos awareness continue to be a barrier against making real progress in reforming attitudes and persuading countries to eliminate the use of the deadly fibre insulation.
Unfortunately, Trump has previous form in making known his views on using white asbestos. In 2012, he said on social media that “the World Trade Centre would never have burned down after the September 11 attacks if asbestos had not been removed from the building”. In the same year he tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” It was a message that he repeated again on a US cable show in January 2016, saying that climate change was just a “very, very expensive form of tax… done for the benefit of China”.
Belief that the use of asbestos has been deliberately negatively spun
Further back, in 1997, in “The Art of the Comeback” – one of at least 15 books he has published over the last 20 years – Trump recounts not only how he overcame the recession of the early 1990s but also states his belief that the use of asbestos has been deliberately negatively spun. It was in this book that the property developer – estimated to have a net worth of 3.5 billion US dollars – called the anti-asbestos law “stupid” and claims the mineral fibres were “also 100 per cent safe, once applied.” Trump argues that the anti-asbestos movement was a “conspiracy rigged by the mob” because asbestos removal was often carried out by “mob-related” firms who put considerable pressure on politicians, who would usually relent to their demands.
Trump also had an earlier run-in with the use of asbestos in 1983. The New York Times reported that several builders constructing Trump Tower were to sue as they “often worked in choking clouds of asbestos dust without protective equipment.” Trump denied any knowledge about the working conditions, but eventually settled the case out of court – 16 years later.
Fears have been expressed in the US that by allowing asbestos to remain legal, the Trump administration would be responsible for a significant rise in asbestos imports from Russia as well as other countries.
Everything should be done to limit UK exposure
Closer to home, The International Trade Committee has also voiced concern over any future trade deals with US, which could allow in products that fall below safety standards. A number of potentially harmful asbestos-containing products continue to be manufactured in the US, including various building materials, vehicle gaskets and brake pads, and even asbestos clothing such as aprons, gloves and welder’s blankets.
When asked, the National Heart and Lung Institute of Imperial College London said there was “absolutely no doubt that all kinds of asbestos can give rise to asbestos-related diseases”, adding that “it probably is the case that white asbestos is less toxic in respect to mesothelioma”. It was concluded, “despite arguments that precautions can be taken to use white asbestos safely, in reality that is not what is going to happen”. The Institute advises that everything should be done to limit UK exposure to “this toxic substance.”
Around 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are now diagnosed each year in the US while in the UK, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show a rise in annual deaths from the deadly cancer.