Asbestos, once used in construction, manufacturing, fireproofing, and much more, is now known to cause a variety of life-threatening conditions—including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a rare and aggressive cancer). Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulations in place that help to minimize asbestos exposure. However, these EPA regulations are not immune from change or dissolution. In fact, with recent EPA budget cuts and changes made by the new administration in the United States, many even fear that the regulations will be rolled back.
Indeed, earlier this year, Republican representatives proposed a bill to completely dissolve the EPA.
If this happens, it would be a devastating loss, both to the people who have dedicated themselves to enacting regulations in order to keep people safe from asbestos and to those at risk of exposure. And to be clear, the link between asbestos exposure and life-threatening disease is not hypothetical. It is concrete; it’s terrifying. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), asbestos kills over 100,000 people a year. And the EPA regulations are the only things protecting many from harm.
Heather Von St. James, an activist who speaks with caregivers, patients, and lawmakers about the dangers of asbestos, was diagnosed with mesothelioma 11 years ago. At the time, she was the mother of a 3-month-old infant, and she was given only 15 months to live.
In a recent interview with Futurism, Heather discussed the work that she has done in order to try and protect others from this deadly illness: “I’ve been partnering with environmental working groups and asbestos disease environmental organization over the last few years to lobby congress in the senate to put a ban on asbestos, and it did help with recent TSCA reform, but who knows what’s going to happen with that now.” In response to recent EPA changes and the threats to these asbestos regulations, Heather is dumbfounded, stating, “I thought we were better than this.”
Heather’s story shows firsthand the consequences of exposure. While asbestos management and regulations are now commonplace in the housing market, within many occupations, the risk still exists. “My health has already taken a hit. But I’m scared for what it means for the workforce that’s up-and-coming, and for the tradespeople, and for the people walking up and down the street by these places—if they undo these regulations, what’s going to happen?”
And, while many people want the government to be as uninvolved as possible with their daily lives, Heather asserts that it’s a necessary element to keeping the population safe. Without regulatory intervention, there is no one to guarantee that people are protected from the fibers.
The fibers of asbestos are still present in countless buildings and structures, namely, those built before 1980. EPA regulations help to ensure that tenants and employees are aware of the potential risk; they help to ensure that building owners make updates to remove asbestos and minimize—to the best of their ability—the potential for exposure. Soon, this may all be undone.
Heather has a few ideas about how we can change the course of the tide, and it all starts with the individual—with you: “It could start as simple as the local state level. Contact your local government. Make sure that the local EPA and OSHA offices are in compliance. You could call your congressperson.” It’s as straightforward as making your voice heard to make a real and palpable difference.
In the end, Heather asserts that she speaks out because she wants to make sure that people are “aware that this big government entity could change lives…it could actually mean life and death to people. And they have the ability to make their voice heard. Even the surgeon general has issued a statement saying there is no safe levels of asbestos.”
We are lucky to live in a society that, at some level, values and operates based off of the thoughts of its people. If we didn’t vote, didn’t protest, didn’t lobby, and didn’t voice our opinions and concerns, we would be living drastically differently. We would be powerless.
And, while it can seem daunting to voice your opinion to a government that operates in opposition, it is important; it is necessary. But, voicing an uninformed opinion is, obviously, not ideal. So while it’s consequential to make your voice heard, it’s important to educate yourself about current legislation, like changing regulations and funding within the EPA. Knowledge is power, and no matter what your occupation, socio-economic status, or age, with the internet everyone is capable of staying informed.
For more information about mesothelioma:
Heather Von St. James is working on a petition to send to Scott Pruitt and the EPA and she’s incredibly close to 5,000 signatures: