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British medical journal takes Canada to task for asbestos “hypocrisy”


Canada prohibits the use of asbestos in most products, yet continues to export about 150,000 tons of the toxic substance annually to developing countries that have few, if any, regulations to protect workers and the public from exposure.


A report published online this week in The Lancet, a British medical journal, explores the growing international furor over Canada’s dual policies of protecting its own citizens from asbestos while mining tons of the known carcinogen for sale to less wealthy nations.


More than 50 countries, including all nations in the European Union, have banned the use and importation of asbestos, which for decades was used to make fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipe and ceiling insulation, drywall, flooring and roofing materials and many consumer products.


Exposure to asbestos fibers has long been linked to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, an incurable malignancy that attacks the linings of the lungs, heart or abdomen. According to the World Health Organization, asbestos-related illness kills more than 100,000 people each year, and some 125 million people worldwide are at risk of exposure in the workplace.


Canada is removing asbestos from government buildings and, like the United States, has a de-facto ban on using asbestos-containing materials in most products. Meanwhile, the country is the fourth largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos, behind Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. The asbestos is mined in Quebec and shipped to India, Indonesia, the Philippines and other developing nations, where workers and the public are at higher risk of exposure due to lax or nonexistent regulation.


According to The Lancet, “Asbestos campaigners worldwide are appalled at the Canadian and Quebec Governments' refusal to accept advice from public health and medical organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and Canadian Cancer Society, that asbestos in all forms is deadly and that exporting asbestos-related death and disease to developing countries is an abhorrent practice that must end.”


Canada is the only G8 nation that refuses to support adding asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty that gives nations the authority to reject imports of hazardous chemicals. The treaty requires exporters to properly label dangerous materials and include instructions for how to handle them safely. Canada is considered a “rogue nation” for its continued objection to the addition of chrysotile to the treaty.


Quebec’s accessible deposits of chrysotile appear to be dwindling, but some of Canada’s political leaders are anxious to breathe new life into the industry. The Quebec Government is considering a $57 million loan guarantee to a consortium that proposes to reopen the Jeffrey Mine, once a major source of asbestos that is largely inactive. The consortium plans to turn the open pit into an underground mine that would produce as much as 260,000 tons annually.


The Lancet reports that protests led by proponents of a global ban on asbestos are planned this week in London, Quebec and Asian. The London protests were co-organized by Laurie Kazan-Allen, coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS).


“For over a decade, we have been engaged in a David and Goliath battle with asbestos lobbyists, stakeholder governments and commercial interests,” says Kazan-Allen, who also produces the British Asbestos Newsletter. “They maintain that asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions, but we know this is wrong. A new asbestos mine in Quebec would be an abomination.”


In a letter to the Quebec Government, Sugio Furuya, coordinator of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (A-BAN) and Secretary General of the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Centre, said, “We believe it would make more sense, would avoid harming people overseas and would avoid bringing dishonour on Quebec's reputation, for the Quebec government to invest the $57 million in creating alternative economic development in the mining community and to assist the remaining 250 miners in the town of Asbestos.”


Kathleen Ruff, a Canadian anti-asbestos campaigner and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Exports Asbestos to the Developing World, says Canada has turned a blind eye to the suffering asbestos continues to cause around the world, but that it’s not too late to deny the loan guarantee.


“They must set an example to the other asbestos exporters worldwide,” she said. “If this mine re-opens, the Canadian and Quebec Governments will have blood on their hands for generations to come.”