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Asbestos in Canada - Background

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

Most asbestos mining in Canada takes place in Québec. At its peak Québec had 10 of the 13 asbestos mines in Canada. The Thetford Mines region in Québec is home to most of these mines, the largest being the Jeffrey Mine. In fact, the Jeffrey Mine is the largest open pit asbestos mine in the world.

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 depots 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.

In Québec, the workers in construction and the automotive brake industry as well as miners and their families are showing the effects of asbestos.

There is no doubt that chrysotile is dangerous and carcinogenic, even the Canadian Asbestos (Chrysotile) Institute agrees. The debate is over "safe use." Safe use implies prior informed consent. If you don't understand the hazards of the materials you use, you cannot protect yourself.

Friable vs. Non-friable Asbestos

The Asbestos Institute and the federal directive on asbestos argue that asbestos is safe if it is in 'non-friable' form such as asbestos cement. However, the chrysotile still has to be mined, milled, transported and manufactured. It is exported to countries such as India, Taiwan, and Mexico in bags of loose material. The conditions under which the asbestos cement is produced may well be unsafe, as these are countries with serious problems of regulation and enforcement. Even if it can be made into asbestos cement without incident, the sheets and pipes will deteriorate over time, or be re-used by citizens who are not aware of the dangers. Often the walls and roofs crumble onto the people who live there. Chrysotile may be immobilised in asbestos cement for 25 years. Once the cement begins to decay, it will be released into the air, water and people's lungs.

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 lung disease or cancer.

The ban asbestos movement is very strong internationally, and Canada is deluding itself to keep pursuing this as a source of export earnings. Canada's role in supporting science and in discrediting scientists who oppose asbestos exports is well documented, and is increasingly becoming a scandal in Europe and the developing world.

In December of 2003, the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, resisted the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in its list of banned substances. This decision is being reviewed in the fall of 2004.