Memo reveals Canada knew asbestos risks while fighting tighter export rules
For more than a decade, the Canadian government has repeatedly blocked United Nations guidelines on asbestos exports, even after acknowledging that the substance puts workers and the public in developing countries at risk, according to an internal memo obtained by a Canadian news agency.
The memo to Environment Minister Peter Kent was obtained by Postmedia News under Canadian open-records law. Dated last fall, the document said that government officials accepted the criteria by which chrysotile asbestos would be added to the Rotterdam Convention's Annex III, a list of more than 50 pesticides, chemicals and other materials that are considered a hazard, especially in countries with growing economies but few environmental or consumer-protection regulations.
Annex III requires exporters to adhere to a process called Prior Informed Consent, or PIC, which gives importing countries the right to refuse shipments of hazardous materials. To allow for an informed decision on whether to accept a shipment, exporters must inform importing countries of the shipment ahead of time, and they must include documentation explaining the risks as well as up-to-date information on safe handling.
Since at least 2002, Canada's delegation to the Rotterdam Convention has prevented the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the Annex III list, arguing that it can be used safely if handled correctly. But the recently unearthed memo suggests that the government accepts the scientific consensus that asbestos is a potent carcinogen that presents a considerable risk in developing countries.
"Since 2002, chrysotile has been proposed four times for addition to the PIC Procedure of the Rotterdam Convention,” the memo stated. “This decision requires the consensus of the Parties. At previous meetings and again last June, Canada acknowledged that all criteria for the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the Convention have been met but opposed its addition.”
New Democratic MP Pat Martin, a former asbestos miner and longtime critic of the industry, told Postmedia News that the government has purposely ignored the dangers of asbestos.
"That is unforgivable, in my view," Martin said. “They've put commercial and political interests ahead of scientific interests, and in doing so, compromised and undermined the whole purpose and intent of the convention."
Canada was once the world’s top producer of asbestos, representing 85 percent of world production in the early 1900s. But the industry has been in steady decline for decades since research first linked asbestos exposure to mesothelioma, a rare but fatal cancer, and lung disease.
Until 2008, Canada had three functioning asbestos mines that employed 900 people. The Bell Chrysotile Mine, Québec's last underground chrysotile mine, shut down in March 2008 after nearly 50 years of production. The Jeffrey Mine, whose financial troubles have led to a drastic cut in production, is only operational a few months a year. The mine’s owners say they need a $58 million loan guarantee from the Canadian government to avoid shutting down for good. The government has said the company first needs to raise $25 million from private investors.
At least 55 countries, including the European Union, have banned the use of asbestos. But poor and less-developed countries such as India and the Philippines continue to use the substance and rely on Canadian exports to meet demand.