Recently, President Trump’s image showed up on the side of a pallet of asbestos. One of the largest producers of asbestos, a Russian company, posted a photo on Facebook, boasting Trump’s claim that asbestos is 100 percent safe. Many environmental and health advocates disagree.
Asbestos, actually six silicate minerals which look like long, thin fibers, is no longer allowed to be used for insulation in the United States, but it’s still used in some commercial applications. Breathing in or swallowing these fibers has been linked to up to 15,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Environmental Working Group Action Fund. In Pennsylvania, those deaths are higher than the national average.
People die from diseases like lung cancer, and a rare cancer called mesothelioma. Heather Von St. James is a 12-year survivor of pleural mesothelioma. She says most people die within 18 months of a diagnosis. She works alongside the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to advocate for an outright ban on asbestos in the U.S. Its use is banned in 55 countries, including the U.K.
Kara Holsopple spoke with Von St. James recently to learn more about her story, and what she thinks about recent setbacks to getting it banned in this country.
Kara Holsopple: I was kind of surprised by your story about how you were exposed to asbestos, considering your age. Can you share your story?
Heather Von St. James: I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma when I was just 36 years old. I was a new mom, and I was horribly sick. I was completely utterly shocked. The doctor looked at me and said, “Did your dad ever do mining or construction?” And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my dad was a construction worker when I was growing up.’ And we came to determine that I was exposed to asbestos through my dad’s work clothes. He had worked a lot with asbestos doing drywall and demolition. He would come home with it on his clothes and it was in his car. And I would hug him, or go for rides in his car, and all the asbestos was there and I breathed it in. And 30 years later, I ended up getting sick.
Holsopple: I think when many people think of asbestos, they think old buildings–that it’s a product and problem of the past. Where are exposures from asbestos coming from today?
Von St. James: There’s probably asbestos present somewhere in any home built before 1990, whether it be the siding, roofing, insulation around pipes, drywall. So doing DIY is when a lot of people are coming into contact with it and they don’t even know it. They’re saying it’s like a third wave of people getting diagnosed and it’s people who started doing demolition in their homes. That’s what’s scary. And now this administration isn’t going to do anything about asbestos already in the environment.
Holsopple: Under the overhauled Toxic Substances Control Act, asbestos is one of the 10 high risk chemicals that EPA is set to evaluate based on its health impacts. But the Trump administration’s framework for this risk evaluation will set aside most legacy uses of asbestos, like in older homes and schools. What do you think of the handling of asbestos in previous administrations and now?
Von St. James: I think it’s horrible. Asbestos is a known carcinogen. It kills people swiftly. And not banning it is just abhorrent. And now ignoring the fact that it’s in, literally, millions of homes throughout the United States…even if it’s just asbestos tape around some ductwork in your home, that’s still too much.
They have tried to control some uses of it. Like you can’t just go buy a bag of asbestos and use it. They used to have asbestos snow for God’s sake, fake snow that you would put on your Christmas tree. But it’s still used in commercial applications. The highest usage of asbestos is the chlor-alkali industry, and the biggest users of it are located in Louisiana.
Holsopple:: And under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA has proposed requirements for manufacturers regarding new uses of asbestos.
Von St. James: It’s not enough. It’s not going to be enforced, and that’s the tragedy. They tried banning it, and then it was overturned. It’s pretty much been set on a back burner, like, ‘oh, it’s not that important.’ It’s horrible. I’ve seen what this disease does to people. I personally have experienced it. I missed the whole first two years of my daughter’s life basically because I was so sick. Nobody should have to go through that because it’s not convenient or it’s going to cost too much money.
Holsopple:: Do you think that a ban, or at least stricter regulations, were on their way with the reformed TSCA before the Trump administration? Do you think this new administration is standing in the way of more reform?
Von St. James: I felt like we were building momentum. Finally getting asbestos named as one of the top 10 chemicals to look at was huge because before it was just never really talked about. Having it on the TSCA reform was a lot of work and it was triumphant. Then to have them come in and wipe all that out was really heartbreaking.
All of the work that we’d done for the last four or five years had been flushed down the toilet. It was disheartening. I was hopeful that we were gaining momentum and it was the first step to banning any future uses of it or any future imports of it. Now I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel hopeful at all anymore [about it] getting banned during this administration.
Holsopple:: What about the next? What are you doing to keep the fight going?
Von St. James: We’re not giving up. I think until you educate people nothing is going to happen. Until people get angry, and it needs to be more than just the few of us that are angry about it…A whole bunch of people need to realize the danger is poses, and then maybe people will stand up and take action, and then we can see a ban.