Blog Entry

Exporting Death: Asbestos and Canada

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

In December 2003, the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for an Internationally Legally Binding Instrument for the Application of the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (PIC), resisted the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in the list of substances. They claimed they had not had time to study it, and forced the organization postpone to postpone a decision for another year.

In the same month, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) granted $775,000 over three years to the Asbestos Institute, the lobby for the “safe use” of asbestos in countries like India, Japan and Brazil.

NRCan is also behind a federal directive promoting the use of “non-friable” asbestos in federal construction projects.

“Safe Use” of Canadian asbestos in Brazil – breaking open the bags. F. Giannasi photo.

The Jeffrey Mine in Québec. Photo courtesy John VanRaalte.“Safe Use” of Canadian asbestos in Brazil – breaking open the bags. F. Giannasi photo.

The Jeffrey Mine in Québec. Photo courtesy John VanRaalte.

















Here are a few salient facts about asbestos.

1. Asbestos is no longer a major generator of jobs and revenues in Canada. There are less than 950 workers employed in the mines in Québec. These are the only operating asbestos mines in Canada. They continue to function because of subsidies and loan guarantees from the federal and Québec government and the Caisse de dépôts et placements du Québec. The money that has been going into keeping these mines operating would be better spent on remediation of the dangerous tailings in Thetford and on alternative forms of economic development including agriculture in the region.

2. In Québec, the workers in construction and the automotive brake industry as well as miners are showing the effects of asbestos mining. The recent report of Dr. Louise Deguire for Santé-Publique in Québec shows that while the rate of mesothelioma in the rest of Canada is between one and two cases per million people, in Québec for the years 1982-1996, the rate was 14.9 per million for men and 3.2 per million for women. The rate of mesothelioma for Québec men is one of the highest in the world, exceeded only by some counties in Britain, parts of Australia and the Netherlands. Nowhere in the world is there a higher rate of mesothelioma for women than in Québec. From 1982 to 1996, mesothelioma was diagnosed in 832 Québecers – 655 men and 177 women. In a news report, Dr. Deguire pointed out of the 180 Québecers who die each year in work-related accidents about 60, or one-third, die because exposure to asbestos gave them mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.

3. Although chrysotile may be immobilized in asbestos cement (“non-friable uses” as the federal directive on asbestos puts it) for up to 25 years, the cement will eventually begin to decay, and the asbestos will be released into water, air and people’s lungs. Asbestos cement also has to be mined, milled, manufactured, transported, cut and installed. We have heard stories of people in the Third World whose homes are built of asbestos cement cutting their own windows and doorways, of workers up to their knees in asbestos powder, of construction workers without protection breaking up asbestos cement roads and pipes.

4. Although a recent study from the Asbestos Institute showed that chrysotile bio-degrades quickly in the lungs, there is no evidence to indicate that it is the length of time the fibre remains in the lung and not the one-time traumatic event that causes disease. Other studies have shown that some tremolite and/or crocidolite are usually present in chrysotile.

5. The Ban Asbestos movement is very strong internationally, and Canada is deluding itself to keep pursuing this as source of export earnings. Canada’s role in supporting science and in discrediting those scientists who oppose asbestos exports is well documented, and is increasingly becoming a scandal in Europe and the developing world. The industry argues that Russia and other countries will grab the markets if Canada does not. This is wrong-headed on three counts: first, the markets themselves are drying up because of world-wide recognition of the dangers of asbestos in all its forms, second, because economic gain should never be an excuse for knowingly poisoning workers and their communities, and third, the accumulating costs of lawsuits from asbestos victims world-wide and the costs of caring for them will begin to outstrip any profits that may be gained from this industry.

MiningWatch is a founding member of the Ban Asbestos Canada network.