Saturday, June 16, 2018

Cancerous Presidency: Donald Trump's Strange and Deadly Love Affair with Asbestos

by Nomad

Back in August 2016, Nomadic Politics featured a post on Trump's peculiar relationship with the carcinogen asbestos. The other day, I took a look at that post and decided it was time to update it.

Trump's Outlandish Claim

Of all of the Trump's absurd notions, one of the most peculiar is his ideas about the World Trade Center and asbestos. In his opinion, if only the world had listened to him, the Twin Towers would not have fallen.
Had, he claimed, contractors not been forced to use an alternative fire retardant, the World Trade Center would have been able to withstand the attack. If only asbestos had been used, the Twin Towers would still be standing today. 

In a 2012 tweet, Trump said:
"If we didn't remove [the] incredibly powerful fire-retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down."
Actually, the North and South Towers did not "burn down." They collapsed. That's something Trump surely knows. It might sound like a hair-splitting distinction but it is actually important.

With the intense jet fuel fires reaching an estimated 1800 degrees Celsius [3272 degrees Fahrenheit, by my reckoning], the steel framework of both towers was compromised.

Where asbestos is used as fireproofing, it is only designed to protect against 1100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to experts, steel loses about 50 percent of its strength at that temperature. The sheer weight of the building was enough to cause it collapse.
As one professor theorized:
"I believe that the intense heat softened or melted the structural elements floor trusses and columns so that they became like chewing gum, and that was enough to trigger the collapse."
A week after the attacks, the New York Times looked into the idea that asbestos might have saved the Towers. Here's what the engineers and scientists said:
Virtually as one, experts on the development, testing and use of fireproofing materials say no standard treatment of the steel, asbestos or otherwise, could have averted the collapse of the towers in the extraordinarily hot and violent blaze.
Of course, it might have bought more time for people to escape. That's not what Trump claimed. However, even that is debatable.
The definitive data simply does not exist and such claims should be viewed with a lot of skepticism.
Of course, that didn't stop asbestos manufacturers from making this claim back when the Towers were first attacked in 1993.

This brings up another question. Why did Trump allege that all of the asbestos was removed from the WTC and replaced?  To answer that, we have to go back to the construction of the WTC.

According to one source, at the time when the towers were being constructed, there was growing concern about the use of asbestos and the health risks.
Initially, the Port Authority had reportedly planned to use over 5,000 tons of asbestos in the construction of the WTC. Due to health fears, that amount would later be reduced considerably. In fact, the asbestos-insulating material had only been sprayed up to the 64th floor of the World Trade Center towers.

Nevertheless, it has been estimated that the WTC contained around 400 tons of asbestos fiber at the time of the attacks. Admittedly, that's quite a reduction but it is wrong to say there was no asbestos protecting the buildings. So what happened to those 400 tons? Much- if not all- of that, was released "into the ambient air with the smoke plume, collapsing towers, and subsequent fires."

This matter became relevant when first responders at Ground Zero -  more than 1,600 people- filed lawsuits, claiming that their health was ruined by dust and smoke from the collapsed World Trade Center. 

In 2012, federal lawmakers set aside $2.76 billion for a fund for people who developed illnesses after spending time in the ash-choked disaster zone.
That sum reportedly did not cover any type of cancer.

Dirty Exposure and Cover-Up  

In a strange way, Trump's narrative of the asbestos (non-) threat tied in with one that the mayor of New York promoted at the time of the attack.

Within a week of the attack, then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Guiliani assured the public that the dust posed no danger to New Yorkers. He said:
The air is safe as far as we can tell, however, we really urge all the relief workers to use the masks and goggles when they get really close.
Even as he was reassuring the public that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, there were real concerns about dust exposure.
Records show that the city was aware of the danger in the ground zero dust from the start. In a federal court deposition, Kelly R. McKinney, associate commissioner at the city’s health department in 2001, said the agency issued an advisory on the night of Sept. 11 stating that asbestos in the air made the site hazardous and that everyone should wear masks.
That's not the impression that Guiliani and other officials were giving to New Yorkers.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator at the time, Christie Whitman noted that "slightly above-normal levels of asbestos" were detected following the attack but she added that people working at Ground Zero, were "not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances."

She claimed that the EPA had 18 pieces of monitoring equipment at the trade center site testing air and dust particles every 12 hours. Whitman additionally told the press  she was  glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that "their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." 

Six years after the attacks, the New York Times reported that:
According to public hearing transcripts and unpublished administration records, officials also on some occasions gave flawed public representations of the nature of the health threat, even as they privately worried about exposure to lawsuits by sickened workers.
Fifteen years after the attacks, Whitman finally admitted that she had been wrong. Stopping short of confessing that she had lied to the public, she apologized profusely and said she felt "awful."
“Whatever we got wrong, we should acknowledge and people should be helped. I’m very sorry that people are sick I’m very sorry that people are dying and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry. We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”
For many who were exposed after being told it was safe, that minor mea culpa came too late.

Let's return to our original question: What's behind Trump's love of a known carcinogen? The answer to that might surprise you- but, knowing Trump as we all do, it probably won't.

Trump's Asbestos Conspiracy

Trump's advocacy for asbestos kicked into high gear back in 2005 when he appeared before Congress to give his "expert" opinion to a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 
"In New York City, we have a lot of asbestos buildings. And there's a whole debate about asbestos. A lot of people could say that if the World Trade Center had asbestos it wouldn't have burned down. It wouldn't have melted, okay?"
In his testimony, Trump skipped over the well-established dangers of asbestos. He mocked the Health and Safety oversight of the US government.
A lot of people think asbestos...a lot of people in my industry think asbestos is the greatest fire-proofing material ever made. And I can tell you that I've seen tests of asbestos, vs. the new material that's being used, and it's not even a contest. It's like a heavyweight champion against a lightweight from high school. But in your great wisdom, you folks have said asbestos is a horrible material, so it has to be removed.
Trump alleged that the movement to remove asbestos was not based on decades of science and health warnings. The demand for asbestos abatement was, in fact, a mob-driven conspiracy.

In his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, he alleged that the mafia was behind the movement to remove asbestos:
I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented.
This ridiculous idea is generally reported as just another one of Trump's ignorant and preposterous notions. In fact, there's actually a lot more to it than that.

A Russian Connection?

Here's the plot twist. According to a report by the Australian press, the Russian mafia is the force behind a powerful international pro-asbestos lobby.
Last year, Brad Parker from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) told an official inquiry:
"It's commonly known within the anti-asbestos movement internationally that the pro-asbestos lobby is the Russian mafia. They work in a way where they intimidate, they're engaged in corrupt activity. There's been rumors circulating, certainly, of money crossing hands with international politicians."
And yet, the story Trump promoted was that the mafia was leading the movement to abandon the use of asbestos. That's apparently completely the opposite from the consensus opinions of insiders. 

In fact, the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos can be found in Russia. It mines about a million tons of asbestos a year and supplies more than half of the world’s asbestos. It exports about 60 percent of it. All in all, the annual sales of asbestos total about 18 billion rubles, or $540 million. More importantly, the business is growing, mostly because other countries are getting out of the business.
Dr. Arthur Frank, professor and chair emeritus of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University explained that Russia is so protective of its asbestos industry and uses similar tactics as Big Tobacco in terms of concealing the industry’s health risks.

It's something of an understatement to say that the industry campaign is aggressive. Despite the risks, it has been remarkably successful too. Asbestos use has grown around the world, especially in countries like China and India where regulation takes a back seat to economic growth. 
According to Dr. James Leigh, director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia:
With its new life in emerging markets, the cumulative death toll from asbestos may reach 10 million by 2030.
Due to health and safety diligence, the US has not been a part of this boom. Consumption in the United States peaked at 800,000 tons in 1973. It was approximately 1,000 tons in 2012.

If only the somebody could find a way to roll back all those pesky regulations regarding the handling and usage of asbestos, the Russian mob/government/oligarchs could make a fortune in America too.
Enter celebrity property developer Donald J. Trump.

The 100% Safe Product

Back in 2005, property-developer Trump also told Senate committee members that asbestos abatement was no big deal. Its removal was little more than an inconvenience.
Asbestos is constantly being gotten rid of, with tenants in possession. [remaining in the dwelling] You sit there. They wrap it, they conceal it, they do it. They do it in many professional firms. They move the asbestos..I could name a hundred tenants where it's been done while they sit in their offices, literally working. Sometimes it's done over weekends.
By emphasizing how safe asbestos was, Trump's ideas are amazingly (and dangerously) wrong. The truth, as Trump fully knows, is very different. Asbestos abatement contractors must, in fact, follow strict regulations when performing asbestos removal to ensure that asbestos is not dispersed outside the work area. Respiratory protective equipment is mandatory for all workers.

Asbestos removal must be completed by an EPA licensed asbestos abatement contractor. Furthermore, the building has to be tested by an EPA licensed testing consultant.
Only a special vacuum cleaner that is designed for asbestos containment (class H) can be safely used when cleaning up during and after asbestos removal. Ordinary vacuum cleaners cannot be used, even those fitted with a HEPA [High efficiency particulate air] filter. An ordinary vacuum cleaner will expel the asbestos fibres into the room air.
And yet, according to Trump, the process is more like the labor of a crew of house painters.
They take sections of offices and they do it, and the people move from that section to another section, and they're inconvenienced for a day and a half.
A lackadaisical attitude like the one Trump showed before the Senate committee is, to say the least, disconcerting. As a property developer, Trump's ideas were downright life-threatening.

The Facts about Asbestos

Contrary to Trump's "wisdom," asbestos is not a material that needlessly over-regulated by the authorities. Improperly handled, it is a lethal threat to both workers and the average citizen.

One scientific paper points out that "the knowledge that [asbestos] was a mortal health hazard dates back at least a century, and its carcinogenic properties have been appreciated for more than 50 years."
Occupational Safety and Health Administration says the asbestos often used in fireproofing will "readily release airborne fibers if disturbed"—and that there's "no 'safe' level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber."
According to the Asbestos Nation Campaign, every year, between 12,000 – 15,000 Americans per year die as a result of asbestos-related diseases, which includes the rare cancer mesothelioma (caused exclusively by asbestos).
It really is a world-wide problem too. Fifty-five countries have completely banned the use of asbestos in any case, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Japan.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 125 million people around the world are exposed annually to asbestos in the workplace, and the International Labour Organization says more than 107,000 workers die each year from a related disease. In addition, several thousand people die from asbestos in the environment each year.
According to the experts, asbestos exposure has been linked to the following medical conditions:
  • Asbestosis (An inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that causes shortness of breath, coughing and permanent tissue damage)
  • Pleural Plaque, Pleural Thickening and Pleural Effusions (Illnesses affecting the membranes lining the lungs and chest cavity)
  • Lung Cancer
  • Mesothelioma (A cancer of the membranes lining the chest and abdomen)
  • Gastrointestinal Cancer
  • Colorectal Cancer – and several others
These are the facts. This is science backed by decades of research. Not some half-baked conspiracy theory prefaced by "some people think.."

*   *   *
Last week, the head of Trump's EPA Scott Pruitt made a rather startling announcement. The EPA would no longer evaluate asbestos in homes and business as a danger or health risk. Trump, the announcement noted, believes asbestos is "100% safe when applied." The agency also announced it will not prohibit new uses or review exposures from abandoned uses of asbestos.
As Newsweek reported:
The EPA did say that it would take unprecedented action on asbestos by requiring new manufacturers and importers of asbestos to receive EPA approval before importing or processing the chemical.
Critics point out that this is not a ban and that the largest users of asbestos will continue to use it.

Another win for the Trump administration and perhaps for the Russian mafia.