Many things were said and ideas expressed by the main players in the lead-up to the recent US election. Candidates from the various sides of the political divide referred to announcements previously made by their opponents on all types of issues. Not surprisingly, a number of the more controversial statements were made by President-Elect, Donald J. Trump, including his views on global climate change and the risk of asbestos use.

The issue of global climate change is probably one of the biggest concerns of our age and a subject of endless dispute. While one side argues that there is clear evidence to show the pattern of change linked to man-made activity others simply consider the evidence to be a concoction of myth and conspiracy. Claims that some of the dangers of asbestos exposure are also largely a myth continue to find expression.

The fatal health risks of asbestos, known to lead to the development of mesothelioma cancer and other asbestosis diseases were first identified more than 100 years ago and are today recognised in the UK, the USA and many developed nations around the world. Yet whenever white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos is uncovered at a UK school, council premises or housing estate, a spokesman is often quick to announce that the type of asbestos found is ‘low-risk’ and does not pose a health threat.

Historical barriers

The persisting idea that one type of asbestos, i.e. white chrysotile is low risk is based on UK research carried out during the 1940, 50s and 60s, which found that white asbestos fibres break down more easily into smaller particles and were considered less likely to turn cells cancerous. Less congested lungs also means that the body is also more easily able to clear out the longest fibres. As a result, white asbestos was still in use after the more toxic brown and blue asbestos were banned.

Misunderstanding, lack of information or limited asbestos awareness have all been historical barriers to making real progress in reforming attitudes and persuading countries to eliminate the use of the deadly fibre insulation. The first country to ban most forms of asbestos in 1983 was Iceland, followed by the UK ban on brown and blue asbestos in 1985, and white asbestos in 1999. Today a total of 55 countries have banned asbestos but not the USA. While most spray-applied asbestos products were banned for fireproofing and insulating purposes in the early 1970s, a total US ban was challenged and rejected by asbestos industry supporters in 1991.

It appears that President-Elect Donald Trump has also lent his vocal support to the use of asbestos.

Use of asbestos has been deliberately negatively spun

There have been many well-publicised statements made by Donald Trump in his bid to become the next US president. However, political opponents have uncovered a number of other views, which Trump has made in previous years, some less well publicised than others.

As has been noted throughout the election campaign, Trump is a regular user of Twitter. In November 2012, he tweeted: “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”.

However, 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.

The billionaire property developer calls 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 “relented, as usual.”

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.

Supporters in the US challenged and overturned the asbestos ban

Industrial use of asbestos as a low-cost source of insulation was at its peak in the three decades of reconstruction and industrial expansion following the end of WW2. Earlier guidelines gave way to stricter regulations by the 1970s, such as The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 in Britain and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Act, 1972. However, ten years or more later, many employers were still failing to issue protective equipment or supply health information to their workforce.

While Britain began its first asbestos ban in 1985, asbestos industry supporters in the US challenged and overturned the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule, introduced by the EPA in 1989. It’s not surprising that some in the US may still harbour misconceptions about the risk of asbestos when the only items that the EPA have been able to ban include corrugated paper and flooring felt.

The number of mesothelioma victims in the US has increased from the 1970s to the early 1990s with around 3,000 new cases now being diagnosed each year. In Britain, the total number of fatalities now expected between 1968 and 2025 could actually reach more than 2,800 every year, according to a 2009 study prepared for the Health & Safety Executive.