The EPA is Bringing Back Asbestos, and That’s Bad for the Bronx

Or bad for anyone with lungs really ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

by Robin Happel

Copy Editor and Concerned Indoor Air Breather

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced roll-backs to restrictions on asbestos, the charming, cream-colored murder foam that many of us may recognize from old houses, or even parts of NYC’s city infrastructure.  Anyway, for anyone not keeping up with the truly chaotic timeline we live in, a Russian company is now putting Trump’s face on pallets of asbestos to thank him for personally pushing this deregulation, which is – and I really cannot stress this enough – a real thing that is actually happening. (If you’re wondering if there’s any way this could possibly be more suspicious, of course the Russian asbestos company has ties to Putin. This is potentially yet another Emoluments Clause violation, but at this point who’s counting?)

Trump’s adoration of asbestos dates back to long before he was president. This may seem strange until you remember that, as a sketchy landlord, Trump is literally the target demographic for asbestos. Previously, he claimed that the magical, not-at-all-mesothelioma-causing mineral could have prevented 9/11, and the mafia was behind its ban. (Note: in our era of fake news, the paper feels compelled to inform our readership that jet fuel does, in fact, melt both steel beams and asbestos. Also, if we learned anything from The Godfather, keep the cannoli, not the asbestos.) During his time as a real-estate tycoon, Trump was famed for his affinity for both asbestos and turning away black tenants, a form of clandestine segregation commonly known as ‘redlining.’ And, although it’s unfair to blame any single landlord for NYC’s legacy of rampant redlining, Trump’s hotels were sued in the seventies by the Justice Department for racial discrimination, and long infamous in activist circles for similar reasons.

Back when smoking was still thought to be good for your teeth, asbestos was marketed under such monikers as “White Magic” and “Snow Drift.” (Mildly childhood-ruining fact: the snow in a couple classic Christmas movies is actually asbestos.) Landlords loved the inexpensive insulation, and industry lobbyists covered up the chemical’s human costs much as Big Tobacco and lead paint lobbyists did. (In the words of one especially callous executive, “if you enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos, why not die from it?”)

But even after the health risks of asbestos were widely known, it continued to be used in poorer boroughs, and neighborhoods neglected by city authorities. In Dorothy Day’s time, back when the Bronx was burning, much of the South Bronx was largely left to fend for itself, and cleaning up asbestos and lead paint was a low priority. Nevertheless, such toxins had a tremendous human cost. Lead exposure correlates with everything from cancer to crime rates, and asbestos is similarly linked to various lung diseases.  During the golden age of Trump’s real estate empire in the eighties, landlords and lobbyists alike left black residents of the five boroughs beset with toxic air and water, leading to a spike in asthma and other ailments. Historically black NYC neighborhoods suffer from asthma at a rate over four times that of the city’s wealthier white residents, and almost twice the national average, due in large part to poor city planning.

In addition to barring black residents from certain neighborhoods, redlining meant that black and latino families were often forced to live in substandard housing, riddled with lead paint, asbestos, and other contaminants. Even to this day, race is the single closest predictor of exposure to environmental toxins, especially in boroughs like the South Bronx. The single most segregated school district in the United States is in New York City, and it’s no accident that students of color are disproportionately exposed to contaminated classrooms and public facilities.

Although America technically never fully banned asbestos to begin with (one of our many charming legal loopholes!), the risk now is far greater than simply putting asbestos back on store shelves. Even if asbestos remains decidedly untrendy, the EPA is also striking down inspection standards for older buildings, cutting programs that protect children from lead paint, and reducing its risk assessments to leave out the human costs of dangerous chemicals. Such roll-backs will hurt many of the most vulnerable among us, especially victims of environmental racism who are already exposed to asbestos and other toxins. Groups like the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have long lobbied for safer living standards for the South Bronx for precisely this reason. Banning asbestos at the federal level would encourage cities like NYC to expedite clean-up, and save potentially over ten thousand lives per year. (Unfortunately, though, this would obviously be too expensive. Actually cleaning up asbestos is just so extreme compared to Trump’s other policy proposals, like a $70 billion border wall, or boots on the ground on Mars.)

Regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, I hope we can all agree that no anti-regulation ideology is worth legalizing poisons like lead paint and asbestos. Protecting the air we breathe shouldn’t be a partisan issue. No child should be at risk because their family has been left to the mercy of their landlords. No one should be forced to live in fear of their own home.

One of the best ways to help support our neighbors in the South Bronx is to volunteer with a local environmental organization like the Bronx is Blooming, WE ACT, or even a nationwide movement like the Poor People’s Campaign. The NYC Climate March this year will be on September 6th-8th.

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