President Trump announced last week that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. The reaction from the American public is split — as it often is with Trump’s agenda. Supporters say we’re getting out of a “bad deal,” in which we were expected to foot a disproportionate share of the burden. Those opposed call it a catastrophic move that will have devastating environmental impact worldwide for generations to come.
One thing is for sure, though (all climate change denial aside): With climate change — as science and history has shown — comes more natural disasters, and with more natural disasters comes more exposure to deadly asbestos.
Asbestos causes incurable mesothelioma as well as other cancers and respiratory diseases— yet it remains legal and lethal in the U.S. since 1900, we’ve imported more than 31 million metric tons; it was commonly used in construction for many years, creating a lasting health risk. According to the EPA, “Building materials may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos that when carried by the air can be breathed in and cause adverse health effects.”
An estimated 35 million homes, schools, and office buildings contain asbestos materials. When those buildings are damaged or destroyed in natural disasters, microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne and inhalable — their most dangerous state.
An estimated 2,600 tons of asbestos debris was recovered after a massive tornado Joplin, Missouri in 2011.
Hurricane Sandy left behind nearly 6 million cubic yards of debris — enough to fill the Empire State building several times over; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warned that asbestos exposure from this debris was a key issue in the storm’s aftermath.
It was a similar story when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that asbestos contamination in the floodwater, debris, and air after the storm posed a health risk for relief workers and residents who did not evacuate.
Opening the Floodgates to a Deluge of Disasters
We’ve watched disasters like these become more and more normal in recent years, despite growing efforts to mitigate humans’ negative environmental impact. With the U.S. now dialing back our fight against climate change, things will only get worse.
Ironically, Trump chose June 1, the official start of the 2017 hurricane season, to announce that the U.S. would step back from the global fight against climate change. And what’s more, experts are predicting an especially busy hurricane season this year.
Another symptom of climate change, as any Californian can tell you, is extreme drought. Drought and rising temperatures trigger a greater risk of fire. Firefighters know the risk of asbestos better than most — they are diagnosed with mesothelioma at a rate two times higher than the general public, due to the asbestos released as buildings, furniture, and textiles burn.
Earthquakes, too, are expected to increase as the climate changes. In fact, Professor Bill McGuire of the University of London put it bluntly in 2015: “Climate change may play a critical role in triggering certain faults in certain places where they could kill a hell of a lot of people.”
If these earthquakes are killing a hell of a lot of people, they’re going to bring a good number of buildings down, too. In a violent fashion, no less, that will cloud the air with plumes of pulverized, asbestos-laced rubble.
Denial is Deadly
This isn’t conspiracy theory, fear mongering or partisan nitpicking; it is unfortunate fact. The EPA, despite being run by rampant climate change denier Administrator Scott Pruitt, states that “Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change.”
It was ironic to watch Administrator Pruitt take the stage at Thursday’s press conference and, as the face of the agency tasked with protecting the environment, praise the decision for the U.S. to end its role as a leading force against climate change. This, from a man whose home state of Oklahoma is especially vulnerable to changing weather patterns, given its high (and growing) rate of tornadoes.
In the same vein, Trump’s home state of New York has suffered the early effects of climate change more than much of the country. New Yorkers also know all too well about the post-disaster asbestos risk, with more than 2,000 tons of asbestos fibers released into the air when the Twin Towers fell during the 9/11 attacks.
In other words, both of these men, who have made themselves the faces of climate change denial, have seen firsthand how deadly it is. They are joined in this role by 22 Senators who signed on to a letter supporting the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement — all of whom have more than sufficient access to the conclusive science on climate change, as well as hard data on the human cost.
These politicians, who claim to be following an “America first” agenda, have officially failed at their duty to protect Americans. Stepping back from the Paris Accord, stepping back from the fight against climate change isn’t just bad for our global reputation, or the measly environment — it’s directly dangerous to human health.
The next time we go to the polls, we should keep this moment in mind and put our votes behind folks facing climate change in a more realistic and responsible way. For now, if those in Washington won’t protect us, we must take steps to protect ourselves.
Arm Yourselves With Knowledge and Turn Your Anger Into Action
This is probably the first article you’ve read about asbestos and climate change. Given the multitude of catastrophes it’s predicted to — and already does — cause, it’s unsurprising that the asbestos fallout issue isn’t always high on the list of concerns.
Now that you know of the risk, though, here’s the good news — this is one symptom of climate change you can protect yourself against. You’ll find links at the bottom of this article where you can arm yourself with lifesaving knowledge.
You can also take action in the fight to ban asbestos by signing this new petition calling for the EPA to ban asbestos once and for all. While banning asbestos now doesn’t eliminate the existing risk posed by asbestos-contaminated structures, it will usher in the end of the irresponsible use of this known carcinogen and protect generations to come from preventable death.
Don’t wait until disaster strikes to learn the hard way about the dangers of asbestos and how to prevent exposure for yourself and your family. Learn from this moment of adversity, and prepare for the storms to come.
Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization: Natural Disasters and Asbestos Debris Information http://bit.ly/2qJhNxK
U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Dealing with Debris and Damaged Buildings http://bit.ly/2rZcOMY
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): Disposing of Debris & Removing Hazardous Waste http://bit.ly/2rZd9zu