© U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Donald Trump’s ‘War on Regulations’ Is Really a War on Working Class People

I vowed that if I survived cancer, I would do my part to educate people about the dangers of asbestos exposure. Today, that means taking on Donald Trump’s anti-environment agenda.

Heather Von St. James, EPA

© Greenpeace

Donald Trump wants you to think that “regulation“ is a dirty word.

To hear his administration talk about things like the Clean Air Act or the Toxic Substances Control Act, you’d think they only exist to make businesses suffer and waste money. In fact, they’re what stands between working class communities and public health hazards that could kill us.

Trump and his billionaire cabinet wouldn’t understand this because they don’t have to drink water polluted with coal ash or breathe air contaminated with methane. They and their families have never been exposed to the havoc that extractive industries wreak on the health of our environment and communities — but I have.

In the early 1970s, my dad took a job working construction. Because he was new, he was often assigned the easy tasks of sanding drywall and cleaning up. He did a lot of demolition on old buildings, tearing out insulation and tile. When he came home, his clothes were always covered with a grey-ish white dust.

As a kid, I would often wear his coat to do my chores. I would walk around raking the yard or feeding our pet rabbits draped in his over-sized baseball jacket. If I had to get the mail, I would grab it from the doorknob before venturing into the cold.

What I didn’t know at the time was that every time I wore his jacket, I was exposing myself to a toxic substance that would one day nearly kill me.

Asbestos is the root of myriad health problems, the least of these being asbestosis and mesothelioma. For years there were no regulations when it came to using materials that contained asbestos, and tens of thousands of people have died. It was not until the mid-1980s that baseline regulations were put in place and the use of asbestos slowly decreased. Today, the United States remains one of the only industrialized countries that has not banned asbestos.

I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma when I was 36 years old and was told I had 15 months to live unless I sought out invasive treatments. I was a new mom — my baby girl was only three and a half months old when I was handed what I thought was a death sentence.

Heather Von St. James, Cancer Treatment

That’s me in the hospital undergoing treatment for mesothelioma in the mid-2000s. © Heather Von St. James.

A decade later I am one of the lucky ones. My treatment worked, but it was not easy. I lost my left lung and the surrounding tissue, including the left half of my diaphragm and the lining of my heart. I traveled 1,400 miles from home for surgery, and missed months of my daughter’s young life while I was in the hospital. I underwent debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments with side effects that still plague me.

So when I hear Trump and his EPA administrator Scott Pruitt talk about slashing regulations or instituting a “one in, two out” rule, it makes my blood boil.

Communities like the one I grew up in need more protection from toxins in our environment, not less.

Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

Donald Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is a favorite of the fossil fuel industry, having sued the very agency he now leads multiple times during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General.

Asbestos-related cancers are swift and deadly. Most people die within 18 months, even after surgery. Mesothelioma is aggressive and silent. The latency period between exposure and diagnosis is ten to 50 years. I’ve survived mesothelioma for 11 years and during that time I’ve lost more friends than I care to admit to the disease.

Trump’s plans to cripple the EPA or even dismantle it entirely will surely mean more lives on the line. The Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) — or as I like to call it, the “Kill Bill” — is a corporate lobbyists’ dream and a working family’s nightmare.

The RAA would set up so much red tape that it will be nearly impossible for state and federal agencies to protect people from things like exploitative labor practices or pollutants in drinking water.  It would also reverse decades of work to finally ban asbestos and save thousands of lives. Trump and his family will never feel the impacts of this decision — but working class communities like the one I grew up in will suffer.

I vowed that if I survived this cancer, I would do my part to educate people and advocate for a better, healthier future. Today, that means resisting the Trump agenda and fighting for a country in which everyone is protected from dangerous toxins in our environment.

Heather Von St. James at the EPA

© Greenpeace

Heather Von St. James is an 11-year mesothelioma cancer survivor whose world was turned upside when she was diagnosed three months after her daughter was born. After beating the odds, Heather has dedicated her life to speaking with advocates, activists, lawmakers, caregivers and patients to educate on the dangers of asbestos.


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