2018 was a progressive year for the ongoing fight against the global asbestos industry.  On 30 December of that year, a Canadian ban on the import, sale and use of asbestos took effect after years of controversially exporting the product to countries like India on the sly.  At the end of the October, New Jersey, a state home to one of the highest asbestos-related death tolls in America, adopted a draft bill to ban the sale or distribution of asbestos.  Over in Australia, officials had issued a notice to warn people against visiting the ‘contaminated’ Wittenoom, located north of Perth, a former asbestos mining town, which was shut down in the 1970s.

Yet with progression comes sacrifice.  It comes as no real surprise then that Donald Trump, Leader of the Free World (for how much longer?) and king of controversy, ended up tangled in another ‘Russian’ scandal.  First up, over the Summer, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a Significant New Use Rule for asbestos, which would enable new uses of asbestos to be notified and evaluated by the EPA during a review period, which sparked fears that they would be ‘broadening’ the scope of asbestos use.  While time was allowed for public comment, the proposal was seen by critics as Trump’s favour of asbestos finding its way into legislation.  In his 1997 book ‘The Art of the Comeback’, Trump wrote that asbestos was “100 percent safe, once applied” and that the movement against the so-called ‘magic mineral’ was “led by the mob”, who “would do the asbestos removal”.  He even said in Congress in 2005 that “a lot of people could say that if the World Trade Centre had asbestos it would not have burned down” and remarked that it was “heavyweight champion” and compared its alternative to a “light-weight from high school”.

While the strong fire-resistant properties of asbestos have been known for years, Trump’s somewhat warm narrative has been seized upon by Russian asbestos company Uralasbest, a purported ally of Putin and owner of a major mine in the town of ‘Asbest’, who proudly posted photos of bags of asbestos with Trump’s face on them citing that they were “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.”  Following the EPA proposal, it was reported that imports of asbestos in the US are “surging”.  According to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and Environmental Working Group (EWG), data showed that the US imported 272 tons of asbestos in August 2018 which brought the year’s total to over 550 tones, which was over 200 tons more than that imported in 2017.  Once Brazil, from whom the US imported 95% of its asbestos in 2016 had banned asbestos, Russia, Kazakhstan and China fortuitously found themselves in a very opportune vacuum.

What is shocking about all of this is that our nation has a shameful past when it comes to asbestos, yet it does not appear that the US government has caught on to the lessons learned from this side of the pond.  Time and time again lawyers speak to clients who comment that ‘of course, no-one knew that asbestos was dangerous back in the 1950s and 1960s’. Except that they did. It is painful to have to shatter the illusion and admit that Britain too hid its dusty underbelly of deadly fibres in favour of protecting its corporate interests.  There was 33 year old Nellie Kershaw, the asbestos textile worker, whose death nearly 100 years ago, was the first reported death related to asbestos in the UK.  It was the questions into her death that led to the publication of the first Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1931.

Yet, asbestos continued to be a powerful industry with reluctance in the wider media to write about its dangers while research continued to be carried out.  Years later in 1982, another female, Alice Jefferson, sent shockwaves across the nation with the landmark documentary “Alice: A Fight For Life”.  In it, mesothelioma sufferer Alice, who worked at Acre Mill for just three months (a Cape asbestos factory) described colleagues making wigs out of asbestos and putting them on their heads while Cape general manager Tony Mendel discussed keeping a black tie in his drawer, having attended 110 funerals related to asbestos. He later succumbed to the disease.  The Times called the documentary a “horrifying indictment of asbestos and those who deal with it” and went as far as to knock millions off the share price of Turner & Newall, the first company to  industrialise asbestos and sparked much-needed political and legal discourse. By 1985, amosite and crocidolite asbestos were banned with chrysotile being captured in a full ban in November 1999 ahead of a European directive.  Despite its World Health Organisation (WHO) categorisation as a carcinogen, chrysotile’s safety is still being debated in some parts of the world with Ukraine’s ’The Koz Week’ reporting this month that “slate in Ukraine made from chrysotile asbestos… is not harmful to health” according to General Director of construction company “Artvan Group.”

In this country, asbestos campaigners still have a fight on their hands.  Back in September this year, the BBC reported that asbestos materials were found in just over half of the schools in the North West and that there was a knowledge gap as about 23% of teachers had no knowledge of where asbestos was located, with only twice as many knowing about the presence of asbestos in the first place. There is a high-profile campaign from the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) for phased removal of all asbestos from schools and the Department for Education have responded with a recently launched Asbestos Management Assurance Process to ensure school buildings are managed in accordance with guidance.

Whilst asbestos can be stripped from some of these buildings in the long-term and at the cost of millions, it is impossible to erase its lasting impact on the lives that have been and continue to be lost – currently 2,500 per year in the UK and back in 2004, the WHO estimated 107,000 asbestos-related deaths globally.  If Donald Trump really wants to make America great again, perhaps he might turn to “Alice: A Fight For Life” for a true assessment of the impact of asbestos on human beings before his next press conference with President Putin.

This was written by Ian Bailey and Alexia Kapranos