On a daily basis, the Trump regime gives us multiple reasons to slap the palms of our hands to the brows of our heads. And that’s just the visible stuff, as opposed to the stuff that stays below the radar.
Take, for instance, Trump’s plan to make asbestos great again. I bet you’ve missed that one. And who can blame you? Shifts in government policy are often confined to fine print that rarely makes the news cycle.
Trump’s neutered Environmental Protection Agency, over the fervent objections of EPA professionals still on the job, has authored a “Significant New Use Rule” that will likely make it easier for asbestos – a notoriously carcinogenic substance – to make a comeback in America. Sixty nations have totally banned asbestos, and in this country it’s no longer commonly used in insulation or fireproofing materials. But now the EPA has devised language that potentially broadens the American consumer market for foreign asbestos manufacturers. Dissenting EPA officials are raising “significant concerns about the potential health impacts,” but hey, it’s not their EPA anymore. Or ours.
Down in the fine print, we learn that the EPA, hewing to Trump’s deregulatory agenda, is open to approving new specified uses for asbestos in roof coatings, sealants, adhesives, millboard, and “other building products.” And when determining whether asbestos is safe for use in those products, the EPA will not consider oral exposure or skin exposure or the “emission pathways to ambient air from commercial or industrial stationary sources or associated inhalation exposure of the general public.” That’s quite a loophole, considering the fact – as articulated by one EPA dissenter – that “asbestos is an extremely dangerous substance with no safe exposure amount.”
Leave it to Trump to champion a notoriously toxic substance that’s still common in crumbling buildings, that reportedly kills up to 15,000 Americans a year, that has been denounced by health professionals since at least the 1970s. In fact, when I was a young Connecticut journalist back in 1978, I edited an investigative story on asbestos; one key paragraph, buttressed by overwhelming scientific data, stated: “Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma…About 10,000 tons of it are released into the state’s air annually. Cigarette smokers with an occupational exposure to asbestos have 90 times the average chance of getting lung cancer…” And we’ve since learned that asbestos is linked to a broader array of cancers, including ovarian and laryngeal.
So what can possibly explain Trump’s new policy? Why imperil the health of more Americans?
Well, for starters, he loves asbestos. In one of his ghostwritten books, he lauds asbestos as “incredible fire-proofing material” and “the greatest fireproofing material ever made” and a “heavyweight champion.” He didn’t like the decision, by construction officials at the World Trade Center, to halt the use of asbestos in 1971 after 400 tons had been installed. Four years after the towers fell on 9/11, Trump told Congress: “A lot of people say that if the World Trade Center had asbestos it wouldn’t have burned down, it wouldn’t have melted, OK?” (“A lot of people” turned out to be junk scientists. The credible consensus is that the towers would have fallen anyway. The 400 tons of asbestos from the building was spewed into the air – and still imperils the health of people who cleaned up at Ground Zero. One health study says: “Malignant mesothelioma resulting from exposure to asbestos, for example, may not become evident for 30-50 years.”)
But there’s a more profound reason why Trump is bullish on asbestos. It showed up Friday in the 13th paragraph of a New York Times story: “The United States no longer mines or manufactures asbestos. Until recently, Brazil had been the source of about 95 percent of all asbestos used in America, according to the EPA, but last year that country banned its manufacture and sale. Since then, Russia has stepped in as a supplier.”
What a coincidence that his plan to expose more Americans to asbestos-related illness dovetails so neatly with his plan to open the American market to Russia. Trump is relentlessly loyal, to the point of prioritizing Russia over Americans’ health, and Russia definitely appreciates it.
That is not speculation. A Russian asbestos manufacturing firm, Uralasbest (the owner is reportedly close to Vladimir Putin), has stamped its product with a seal that reads: “APPROVED BY DONALD TRUMP, 45th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.” And on Facebook, Uralasbest boasted: “Donald is on our side!…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 percent safe after application.'”
How nice for Russia – especially since asbestos seemed to be an endangered species as recently as 2016, when Congress strengthened a federal law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, in order to make federal bans easier. A Democratic president would surely have followed the departing Obama administration’s recommendation that America should join the 60 other countries that have banned asbestos in all uses. But Trump has predictably gone the other way. (Memo to the 2016 Green Party voters who supposedly prioritized the environment: Happy now?)
There’s an upside to this story, however. Despite Trump’s efforts to serve Russian asbestos manufacturers, there’s no guarantee that American firms will want to import their material. Asbestos is so closely linked to cancer that firms are loath to open themselves to new litigation. Roughly 100 firms that used asbestos have already been forced into bankruptcy, the court precedents against asbestos are well established, and nobody in business wants that kind of exposure.
So Trump may well be thwarted by our infernal checks and balances. That’s the good news. The bad news, as always, is seeing whose side he is on.