Overcoming Our Toxic Legacy

This week, Green For All spoke with Heather Von St. James, an 11-year mesothelioma cancer survivor who has dedicated her life to fighting for a ban on asbestos. In 2006 her life was upended by an environmental toxin she was exposed to 30 years earlier. Now she has something to say to Trump, the families of Flint, and the country about pollution and the future we are fighting for.

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“What I want to say to the families in Flint is to not give up, to keep fighting. They want us to be silent, they want us to give up and just accept things, but we can’t and we won’t. We will continue to fight for what it right, what is moral. The truth will win in the end.” - Heather Von St. James 

Green For All (GFA): How did you get exposed to asbestos?

Heather: My dad worked construction when I was a child, and when he started, most of what he did was drywall sanding, cleanup and demolition. Asbestos was present in the drywall taping mud, and joint compound that he sanded and cleaned up every day. He would come home covered in a greyish white dust. His coat that he would wear every day was one that I would wear myself to do my outdoor chores like rake leaves or feed my rabbits. That way I wouldn’t get my own clothes dirty. It was this coat, covered in asbestos that gave mesothelioma 30 years later.

GFA: Most people who get the cancer you got from asbestos die within 6-9 months. You've lived 11 years on one lung. Why do you feel you were given this chance to live longer?

Heather: I had swift and aggressive medical intervention. I was diagnosed early and fast, within 2 weeks. Many people take months, sometimes years to get a correct diagnosis. I also had very aggressive treatment. I had my entire left lung removed, the lining around it where the cancer was, the left side of my diaphragm and lining of my heart were also removed and replaced with surgical gore-tex. I had a rib removed as well so the surgeon would have easier access to the chest cavity. During surgery, I had intraoperative heated chemotherapy. Cisplatin was heated up to 140 degrees F, pumped into the chest cavity and washed around for an hour. It was pumped back out, I was sewn up and sent to recovery. 3 months following surgery, I had 4 sessions of chemotherapy and after that, 30 sessions of intense radiation.

When I finally started to feel decent after all the treatments, some 18 months after diagnosis, I felt like it was time to start helping others. It took some time, but I found my platform and started blogging with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. I didn’t want people to find themselves alone as I was, nor did I want them to feel lost like I did. Community is so important when you are facing something like this and I’m proud to help others.

GFA: What do you want people to know about asbestos in America right now?

Heather: Asbestos is NOT banned and is still legal and lethal, despite what our current administration thinks. People need to be educated as to where asbestos is, and that it isn’t something you should deal with yourself. So many homes, schools and workplaces have asbestos containing materials in them. Knowledge about where to find it could literally mean life and death.

GFA: Your cancer came from an environmental toxin that has been known to be dangerous for decades. However, people are still dying. Why do you think some communities and some industries are safe from asbestos while others are not?

Heather: There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Extreme precautions taken when handling it and proper disposal are vital in dealing with asbestos. Some communities have the funding to be able to afford proper abatement, where others may not be able to and cut corners, therefore exposing people to the fibers. The only reason a community would be safe from asbestos is if it was never used there in the first place or the time and money was invested to have it properly removed. It boils down to money, if you want my honest opinion.

GFA: What was it like becoming a mom, then getting diagnosed so soon after your daughter was born?

Heather: Getting diagnosed with cancer when your baby is 3 ½ months old isn’t covered in any parenting book. It was a shock to say the least. It made me realize that I would do anything I could to live to raise my daughter. It also made me worry, that if I was growing this cancer while I was pregnant, would SHE be affected? I don’t remember much from her first 18 months of life, and what I do remember is overshadowed by memories of my cancer battle. I missed her whole 6th month of life because I had to travel across the country to have surgery with a mesothelioma specialist. I watched her grow through photos my mom would email me every day. I learned early on to ask for help and I believe my cancer battle has made me a better parent. My husband and I both deal with things differently now than we would have had I not gotten sick. I’m proud to say she has grown into a really cool kid. People say she is an old soul, and had been since she was an infant. It was like she knew all along that I was going through something and she was just a great baby, and now an even better (almost 12) year old kid.

GFA: We met a mother in Flint, Michigan who was told her water was safe again and again for 18 months. In fact the water was full of lead and bacteria. Her young son started to develop seizures and his tonsils became infected, making it hard to breathe. The lead he was exposed to when everyone thought it was safe may remain in his body for decades. Other families had it even worse. Do you see parallels between pollution from lead and asbestos in America? What do you want to say to the families of Flint?

Heather: The correlations are uncanny. The people of Flint are suffering from the effects of environmental toxins and will for decades to come. The government put profits before people. I feel it is the same with asbestos. The dangers of asbestos have been known for decades, yet it remains legal, and is not banned. The chemical lobby has been instrumental in this and keeping the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from banning it completely. I’m working on a petition through Change.org right now to stop President Trump’s appointment on chemical safety.

What I want to say to the families in Flint is to not give up, to keep fighting. They want us to be silent, they want us to give up and just accept things, but we can’t and we won’t. We will continue to fight for what it right, what is moral. The truth will win in the end. 

GFA: Trump has proposed to cut the EPA budget by 31%. He has long championed polluting industries like coal, oil, and gas. With a large infrastructure debate about to take place in Congress, what do you want people to know about America's infrastructure and what needs to happen to protect families and workers?

Heather: So much of our infrastructure is decades old, and has so many pollutants contained in buildings, bridges, etc. In recent years, better and cheaper materials have been developed for commercial use so that these horrible toxins don’t need to be used. For the sake of not only the population, but the environment, my hope is that if and when they do start work on projects that smart environmental decisions will be made. There is no doubt that our schools and government buildings need upgrades, there is no doubt that roads and bridges are in terrible shape. My advice is to be informed when things are happening around you, know what is going on and get involved.

There are Superfund sites across the country that won't be cleaned up if these cuts happen. Libby, Montana and Ambler, Pennsylvania are two that come to mind. There are Superfund sites in almost every state that the EPA is responsible for overseeing the cleanup. The EPA has spent over $600 million dollars to clean up the asbestos in and around Libby. Asbestos permeates the land, the trees, everything in that town.

That in of itself is alarming. It is well known that the chemicals contained in superfund sites are hazardous to humans, and if they get out of hand, how many more people will be exposed? They want to scale back regulations. Regulations are in place to protect workers and the environment from dangerous chemicals or situations. By scaling back regulations, workers will be in danger of exposure to more cancer causing chemicals and substances. The people in the trades and unions are the ones who will suffer the most, just people wanting to go to work to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families heads.

GFA: At Green For All we believe everybody deserves a healthy environment, no matter where you grew up or what your parents do for a living. We need to put families and workers at the frontlines of pollution first in building a greener economy. Your dad's job exposed you to the environmental toxin that almost killed you. How does it feel when you see environmentalists and workers in polluting industries fighting with each other?

Heather: To be honest it makes me so angry. We only get one go around on this planet. Polluting industries are very short sighted, concentrating on the here and the now. The environmentalists are looking to the future, to what is going to happen to our children and our children's children. My fear is that the world we leave them with will be so toxic that life will be vastly different. If we don’t change now, and be proactive going forward, that fear may become reality. If industry and environmentalists could come together, we would all be better off. I know we need jobs, and many of the polluting industries provide many jobs for communities, but let’s look at the big picture, what is the quality of life in these mining and industrial areas? The coal miners suffer from black lung, the people from Libby, Montana, where vermiculite was mined for years suffer from far more cancers than other communities. We need to work together not against one another. And therein lies the crux.

GFA: What is the future that you are fighting for?

Heather: I’m fighting for an informed future. Until people are aware, and it affects them, they won’t care. It is the literal instance of privilege. I don’t have that privilege to NOT get involved, to NOT educate people and make them aware. My life has been irrevocably changed due to asbestos. I don’t want others to suffer like I did. Prevention is the only cure right now.

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