What We are Missing About the Death of HIV Activist, Sean Sasser
Last month, the country mourned the loss of one of the pinnacle characters in the evolution of gay rights and HIV Awareness in recent decades. The world fell in love with Sean Sasser and his partner, fellow HIV Activist and MTV breakthrough reality star, Pedro Zamora, while their love story unfolded on the hit show, “The Real World: San Francisco.” Sasser was only 44 years old when mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos, claimed his life.
In 1994, Sasser played the subtle counterpart to Zamora’s booming call-to-action in the epicenter of the HIV pandemic. Together, they made TV history with a series of “firsts.” It was the first time the public saw an openly HIV-positive interracial couple demonstrate their love and pledge their commitment to one another for everyone to see. As the audience fell in love with their love, it was also the first time that everyone could feel the palpable pain of losing someone to HIV. Zamora passed away shortly after the series aired.
Sasser went on to continue his work in HIV advocacy and carry on the legacy of his deceased partner while continuing his work in his first love, culinary arts. He most recently had been living with his new partner in Seattle, WA where he worked as a pastry chef at Ris, a popular Seattle restaurant.
Just a month ago, nearly 20 years after he and Zamora entered into the hearts and homes of America, Sasser passed away. He was 44 years old. Although the news reports did cite that his cause of death was mesothelioma, no further thought was given to exactly why Sasser had lost his life at such a young age.
But we missed something.
Yes, Sasser was HIV positive. But he did not simply pass away from AIDS related complications. Modern HIV medication has afforded those living with HIV the opportunity to enjoy healthy lives if they stay compliant with their meds and live a healthy life (and Sasser was doing exactly that).
To most, mesothelioma sounds like just some rare form of cancer. And even with the best medication, a person who is HIV positive does still have a compromised immune system, so Sasser’s passing didn’t initially raise any eyebrows.
But in reality, Sasser was a victim. He should never have contracted mesothelioma, negative or positive.
Mesothelioma is a preventable disease that is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a cheap and heat-resistant material that has been used in the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th Century. Although the asbestos companies were aware that asbestos exposure led fatal diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer, they opted to hide this information from the public and quietly reap hundreds of millions in profits while so many suffered.
But the asbestos industry couldn’t escape the devastating truth forever. After decades of scientific evidence regarding the dangers of asbestos, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to more strictly regulate the carcinogen in the mid 1970s.
As more and more victims came forward with life-threatening asbestos diseases, the EPA pushed to establish more stringent regulations. In 1979, the agency finally issued a notice of intent to ban asbestos, but there was simply still too much money to be made. Powerful lobbyists from the asbestos companies combated the proposal and it eventually overturned.
A less stringent effort came 10 years later when the EPA proposed a new phase-out plan, but this time the lobbyists took their fight to the courtroom. The asbestos industry argued the proposed ban’s validity of risk in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA. Even though the court ruled that asbestos is a potential carcinogenic at any level of exposure, the ban was dismissed.
So, although many people in the U.S. believe that asbestos is illegal (as it is in most industrialized countries), it continues to be imported into our country today.
Sasser was an advocate and educator who was passionate about raising awareness for issues that he was passionate about. Fortunately for us, he was able to live a long life as an HIV-positive man. In doing so, he helped changed the lives of many and spur progress in one of the worst epidemics in recent history. Unfortunately, he will not be able to do the same for those who have suffered from asbestos disease. Unlike HIV, mesothelioma is almost impossible to treat and carries a survival rate of between six months and two years. Sasser passed away a month after he was diagnosed.
HIV is still a massive problem in the U.S. and activists such as Sasser and Zamora are needed now more than ever. But Sasser didn’t pass away from AIDS related complications. He passed away from a preventable disease that still has the ability to take the lives of many other Americans.
Sasser devoted himself to the education and prevention of HIV. Let’s not allow his death to be in vein.
It’s time that asbestos is banned in the United States for good.
If you would like to take a stand and let Congress know that asbestos should be banned in the United States, let them know by signing the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s petition here.