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Lobbyists spent millions pushing asbestos on poor countries

A global network of lobbying groups has spent nearly $100 million since the 1980s promoting the virtues of chrysotile asbestos in developing countries, according to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

A nine-month investigation by the ICIJ found that the lobbying groups, with the help of scientists funded by the asbestos industry, have created burgeoning markets for a known carcinogen that has been banned in more than 50 countries.

The campaign, led by the Chrysotile Institute, a Quebec trade group that receives financial assistance from the Canadian government, has helped defeat government regulations aimed at protecting workers and the public in poorer countries from asbestos exposure. Inhaling asbestos fibers causes mesothelioma, an aggressive, incurable cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen.

The Collegium Ramazzini first called for a universal ban on the mining, manufacture, and use of asbestos in 1999. Today, 52 countries ban the substance. In the United States, asbestos is legal but its use is restricted to a few products, including automobile brakes and clutches.

However, two million metric tons of asbestos were mined worldwide in 2009 and more than half of that was exported to developing countries like India and Mexico, where it is used to manufacture cheap building materials.

“Based in Montreal, Mexico City, New Delhi, and other cities, these groups share information and coordinate public-relations initiatives touting ‘controlled use’ of chrysotile, or white, asbestos, the only form of the fiber used today,” said the ICIJ report, which was produced in conjunction with the BBC.

Some 125 million people around the word are exposed to asbestos on the job, according to the World Health Organization. The United Nations' International Labor Organization estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases.

Dr. James Leigh, the retired director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia, predicts at least 5 million to 10 million deaths from asbestos-related cancers by 2030, the ICIJ reported.

Jukka Takala, the director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and a former International Labor Organization official, called the pro-asbestos campaign “totally unethical.”
"It's almost criminal,” Takala said. “Asbestos cannot be used safely. It is clearly a carcinogen. It kills people."

The leader of the asbestos lobby, the ICIJ reports, is Canada, where the government has given $35 million to the Chrysotile Institute, formerly known as the Asbestos Institute.

Asbestos use is restricted in Canada, but mines in Quebec exported 168,000 tons in 2009, more than half of which went to India. Canada has repeatedly defeated international efforts to list chrysotile under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty that gives importing countries the authority to reject hazardous substances at their borders.

Some scientists, such as Dr. J. Corbett McDonald, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal, have received funding from the industry for research that downplays the risks of asbestos exposure. McDonald, who began studying chrysotile-exposed workers in the mid-1960s with the support of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, told the ICIJ that asbestos is an “extremely valuable material.

"It's very cheap,” he said. “If they try to rebuild Haiti and use no asbestos it will cost them much more. Any health effects (from chrysotile) will be trivial, if any."

The Chrysotile Institute's president, Clement Godbout, told the ICIJ that his organization's message had been misinterpreted.

"We never said that chrysotile was not dangerous," he said. "We said that chrysotile is a product with potential risk and it has to be controlled. It's not something that you put in your coffee every morning."

Public health experts say that such views assume employers will provide safety controls and protective equipment for workers — measures that are uncommon in the developing world.

Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant based near Washington who advises the WHO on asbestos matters, told the ICIJ, "Anybody who talks about controlled asbestos use is either a liar or a fool.”