G20 Summit Asbestos Leaders and Laggers Gathered in Hamburg as Mining and Use Continue

07/09/2017 12:34 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2017

The G20 S­ummit that took place in Hamburg this week brought together 20 of the major players in the global economy to discuss issues relating to world economic growth, international trade and the regulation of financial markets. The G20 countries account for more than four-fifths of gross world product and three-quarters of global trade, and are home to almost two-thirds of the world’s population.

But here’s what the media didn’t write about.

Eight of the G20 counties, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and the United States share another interesting trait in common — they have failed to ban asbestos.

Contrary to popular misconception, asbestos is far from a problem of the past. Asbestos kills 194,000 people around the world every year, but many countries turn a blind eye to that risk and continue to mine, use, and trade this deadly dust. Nearly 60 countries have banned asbestos thanks to the undue health risk. The U.S. is, in fact, the only industrialized Western country that hasn’t banned the deadly substance, and they’re in good company among the G20 group, too — 8 of the 20 host nations have similarly failed to ban asbestos.

Among those meeting for G20 are U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladmir Putin — two of asbestos’ biggest fans. The increasingly infamous Putin-Trump-asbestos love triangle is one of the most serious threats the global effort to eradicate this known human carcinogen.

Russia is the kingpin of the global asbestos trade, mining more than a million metric tons per year. Of the four countries who top the list of asbestos producers, Russia has the dubious distinction of being is ranked number one. Each year, Russia mines a million tons of white chrysotile asbestos, and churns out prolific amounts of propaganda claiming that chrysotile is the “safe kind” of asbestos (to be clear, it’s not — the World Health Organization explicitly states “Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, mesothelioma.” Nonetheless, Russia has organized the International Chrysotile Association to counter the minerals’ negative reputation and has even instituted a national “Chrysotile Appreciation Day,” where asbestos workers are compelled to claim the carcinogen they work with is safe.

Trump, too, unapologetically praises asbestos and supports its continued trade and use. He went so far as to suggest back in 2012 that the Twin Towers wouldn’t have fallen in the attacks on 9/11 had more asbestos been used to fireproof (incidentally, the health fallout from the hundreds of tons of asbestos and other toxins that were present in the towers and released when they fell is a high-profile problem). This stance is made more interesting knowing that Trump, before making these statements, had been the subject of a lawsuit wherein workers on one of his building project claimed unsafe working conditions, including heavy asbestos exposure.

Now, Russia has been producing and exporting asbestos for decades, and the U.S. has long been importing the substance. What’s interesting, though, is that 2016 is the first time on record that the U.S. purchased asbestos from Russia. That’s right — despite the sanctions against Russia, we started paying them last year to ship us a known carcinogen that kills as many as 15,000 Americans every year.

Will this budding economic relationship blossom now that Putin has a friend in the White House?

Putin and Trump carry a terrifying amount of political and financial power between the two of them — more than enough to dial back the progress activists have made in reducing the global risk of asbestos exposure. Anyone following U.S. politics has seen President Trump’s powerful influence in the rapid work to deregulate industry and his questionably qualified, business-friendly political appointments (i.e. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos). The moves to deregulate plus an EPA led by Pruitt — a lawyer, not a scientist, who doesn’t even believe in the EPA’s mission — isn’t a promising combination when it comes to protecting the country from toxins and harm.

The Kremlin’s influence is even more directly relevant to the asbestos industry. In addition the internationally distributed propaganda, Russia just weeks ago played a major role in blocking regulations to global asbestos. Russia, along with five other countries, blocked the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the UN’s Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list at the 2017 Rotterdam Convention. All six types of asbestos are carcinogenic, but chrysotile is the only type of asbestos not included in the list. The Convention does not prohibit trade of the listed substances, but requires exporters to establish protocol to inform purchasers about the hazards related to the substances.

The disregard for human health and general wellbeing exhibited be these two uber-powerful world leaders is chilling. Their relationship — and the economic relationship between the countries they lead — must remain a concern to all.

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