One month after the Trump administration signaled it would consider approving “new uses” of asbestos in the US, imports of the cancer-causing mineral skyrocketed, increasing by 2,000% between July and August.
In July, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposal for a “significant new use rule,” which invited manufacturers to petition the federal regulator to seek approval of any new asbestos product on a case-by-case basis. In August, the US imported 272 metric tons of asbestos, worth about $400,000. That was up from 13 metric tons, or about $26,000-worth, in July.
Still, it’s too soon to tell if the August numbers are a blip, or if the policy change is truly influencing asbestos imports to the US. Since monthly figures are erratic and there doesn’t seem be any seasonal patterns, the best way to assess trends in asbestos imports is to look at rolling 12-month sums. That context shows that the huge August month could either be a sign of an emerging trend upwards, or just a course correction in what has been a run of down years; imports have mostly been in decline since 2013, with a slight rise in 2015.
The uptick between July and August was first surfaced by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates on environmental health issues, and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. But our own analysis, with a longer view of the data, suggests it is too soon to declare that asbestos is making a comeback.
Right now, most of the asbestos imported into the US comes from Brazil. But Brazil’s supreme court banned asbestos in 2017, so that source will likely dry up soon. When it does, Russia will become the biggest—and possibly the only—importer of asbestos to the US. And in a world where most industrialized countries (60 countries and counting) have completely banned asbestos, Russia has few markets for the asbestos it continues to produce. A Russian asbestos company immediately celebrated the EPA’s move on Facebook by posting a photo of pallets of its product wrapped in packaging stamped with images of Donald Trump.
The US never banned asbestos, despite undisputed evidence that it causes several types of cancer in humans.
And Trump has openly derided asbestos bans in the past. In 2012, he tweeted that if asbestos hadn’t been removed from the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers would not have burned down. In his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, he claimed falsely that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob,” the Washington Post notes.