On July 5th, I posted Part 1 of a two-part article on this blog site on the topic of asbestos mining in Quebec and the recent financial and political support provided to the industry by federal and provincial governments. (http://bloghm.hazmatmag.com/2012/07/asbestos_industry_given_58m_le.htm)
As I partly hoped, I sparked a controversial discussion. In a rebuttal to my first article on asbestos posted by Guy Crittenden on July 16 (Asbestos subsidies: Canada’s shame), Kathleen Ruff, a former director of the BC Human Rights Commission, took a more hardline approach against the mining and exporting of asbestos, arguing that industry in the developing world generally does not take proper safety precautions when using asbestos and that many workers aren’t even aware that they are handling a toxic substance. She compares the export of asbestos to the marketing of cigarettes, decrying the handful of industry scientists still arguing against the negative health effects of asbestos. (http://bloghm.hazmatmag.com/2012/07/asbestos_subsidies_canadas_sha.htm)
Ms. Ruff is not alone in her views, either. In late July, an alliance of more than one hundred and fifty health organizations and scientists from Canada and around the world called for a complete ban on the mining and use all of forms of asbestos.
Since asbestos is known to be a harmful and toxic substance, it no longer sees significant use in Canada. Some people think asbestos is no longer is used at all in Canada but as I point out in a note at the end of this article data posted annually on the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) web site shows this is not completely accurate.
While asbestos no longer is used widely in Canada, we still are a major exporter of the product to developing nations such as India. The question I posed at the end of my first article on the Asbestos Industry in Quebec was the following: Are Canada’s efforts to aggressively export asbestos to developing nations as bad as the efforts made by multinationals to market cigarettes, our used and banned drugs, our banned pesticides, and other products that we started in the 1970s and continue to this day? My personal view is that asbestos export is part of a long chain in economic history. Developed nations (and metropolitan centres in the past five to eight thousand years) export dangerous goods, products, drugs and chemicals and import and export alien invasive species. Why? Because we seek to make money by identifying larger markets for the products we produce (e.g. RIM promoting the Blackberry smart phones in India, etc.), cheaper labour sources and inexpensive resources to keep our developed economic engines humming.
In my July 5th blog, I awkwardly sought to provide a somewhat cynical, nuanced and at times ironic view of the asbestos export issue, pointing out that, while asbestos is a dangerous substance, the risks associated with its use can be mitigated and minimized with proper procedures, regulations and enforcement. I observed that these procedures and rules are all too often ignored in developing nations but then challenged the federal and Quebec governments to step up to the plate and help with sounder technology transfer to protect the health and safety of workers and residents in the asbestos-importing nations such as India. If we can transfer solar cooker and help install water wells in developing nations, surely we can help them employ our socio-technical systems to more safely use a substance like asbestos as well.
Part of my reasoning was related to the fact that Canadians have spent millions of dollars refining the technologies associated with controlling asbestos hazards. We have produced hundreds of reports and studies by some of the best engineers and doctors in the world, including the late Dr. Fraser Mustard (who prepared the internationally-lauded “Early Years” studies on the vital importance of educating children between ages 1-4). Thousands of Canadians, as well as ten of thousands of others, have died, either directly because of asbestos exposures and its related cancers, or because their lung-function has been massively reduced. We have paid a price with our health and safety and can show others how to use the product more safely. I also felt that there is realistically little chance of Canada ending its asbestos production with so much historical, economical and political power behind the industry.
To wit: during the 2011 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a campaign stop in Asbestos, 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal, Quebec, to promote his party’s local electoral fortunes as a solid promoter of the industry. “The only party that defends the chrysotile (asbestos) industry is our party, the Conservative party,” Harper said in French, framed by a huge Fleur-de-lis at a seniors’ home. We elected Mr. Harper and his party. Indeed, he may be re-elected in 2015. Perhaps soon the Harper government may be seeking to discover and mine asbestos near Parliament Hill. Maybe he will offer unemployed former federal civil servants jobs working at these mines. Nothing would surprise me.
Without doubt much of what Ms. Ruff said in her rebuttal is correct and persuasive. To be fair, there is no guarantee that we would be able to ensure the same level of safety in regards to asbestos use in developing nations. It is possible that industry in developing nations will continue to ignore safety procedures in regards to asbestos. Moreover, the evidence to indicate that asbestos is used safely in these places ranges from weak to non-existent, and the Canadian government’s continued support of this industry in the face of overwhelming international resistance is an embarrassment.
However, shutting down Canada’s asbestos industry is not a simple issue. For starters, there are a hundreds of people in Quebec directly and indirectly dependent on asbestos mining for their livelihoods. In the past, entire towns depended on asbestos mines as their main source of employment. The people living in these towns feel betrayed. They had nothing to do with the bad science used to justify asbestos exports; they just want to keep the local asbestos mine open so that they can earn a decent wage to keep their heads above water.
The importance of asbestos mining in these communities also places pressure on local politicians. Even if closing the mines ultimately is the right thing to do, the federal, provincial and local representatives don’t wish to be seen as being opposed to the asbestos industry.
Dozens of other communities in Canada face similar dilemmas. As I pointed in Part 1 of this series, we have fostered a flawed economic development model in Canada that relies on development of resources and we fail to add value to the wood, oil and minerals we extract.
Furthermore, asbestos is by no means the only potentially dangerous product Canada produces and exports. Drugs and products banned in developed nations, cigarettes (as noted by Ms. Ruff), cell phones, electronics containing toxic elements, and banned pesticides are all examples of Canadian exports that are known to be harmful.
For centuries, companies and corporate charters based in Europe, North America and other developed nations have wreaked ecological, political and social havoc by exporting dangerous substances, technologies, ideologies, resource management ideas (such as sustained yield) and socio-technical systems.
Some of the disruptions these dangerous chemicals, systems and technologies have caused are shocking in their scope, such as the infamous industrial disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984. On the night of December 2, 1984 the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh leaked methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. The toxic substance made its way in and around the shantytowns located near the plant, resulting in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people.
Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release. (Others estimated 8,000 died within two weeks and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases.) An Indian government affidavit filed in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries. If this accident had happened in Canada, billions would have been paid in compensation and Union Carbide would have had to declare bankruptcy. Instead, a U.S. court conveniently ruled that damages would be based on Indian law and mere millions were paid out.
The Bhopal disaster graphically showed how we export death to developing nations when we transfer our dangerous technologies and place them in the hands of companies, subsidiaries, technologists and engineers in developing nations who may not understand the risks associated with their use. There are dozens of other examples.
On a subtler scale, we choose to continue to export and promote other potentially dangerous substances in developing nations despite being aware of the risks. For example, byssinosis, a lung disease contracted by inhaling cotton dust in poorly ventilated textile factories, was a major threat to workers for hundreds of years, but we kept using cotton, and now the risk of that disease has been largely eliminated in the developed world due to better manufacturing practices. The fact that byssinosis is still a common problem in many developing nations reflects problems with technology transfer and a failure of political will.
In the past decade we also have begun to promote cell phones and smart phones as miracle devices in developing nations, largely because many of the nations lack hard public infrastructure such as phone lines and roads. Meanwhile growing evidence indicates that cell phones and other wireless technologies emit very high levels of electromagnetic radiation and should be used with great care, and not held up to head when speaking on the phone for more a couple of minutes (if at all) because of the risk of brain tumours and other ailments. (I will examine these topics in a future blog.)
To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in his classic movie “Dirty Harry”, we have to ask ourselves one question: why do we feel “lucky” about having technologies and resources such as asbestos instead of a bit sick to our stomach and depressed?
Why haven’t we banned the production and export of all known potentially harmful substances, including asbestos, to developing nations? We obviously are feeling lucky and our legal system and governments protects companies who export military might and death-causing technologies. And it has been thus for hundreds of years, starting with the Charters granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the British Crown in the 17th century.
In an ideal world a ban on the export of known potentially harmful substances would certainly show an admirable commitment to the health and safety of all people around the world, not just Canadians. In a celebrated essay published in 1989, Dr. Barry Commoner made a compelling case for chemical and product bans, and observed that regulation was far less effective in achieving environmental protection goals. He argued that the best way to keep toxic chemicals out of the environment is to stop producing and using them, citing as success stories the bans of DDT and PCBs in the 1970s and the phase-out of lead in gasoline in the 1980s. Commoner argued that these examples should serve as models of sustainable industrial development. (For more on Commoner, see http://www.amazon.com/Barry-Commoner-Science-Survival-Environmentalism/dp/0262050862)
I am a big fan of Dr. Commoner and for years have required my students to read his compelling writing. Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist society, and often, profit comes first, for better or for worse. While bans are an admirable goal, they are not necessarily realistic. Product bans deprive shareholders of enormous returns on investments in research and development (R&D), marketing, manufacturing and distribution. Thus, even when the product is demonstrated to cause health effects and banned in North America and Europe, there is enormous pressure to ship defective and banned products to developing nations where standard-setting procedures may be more lax.
Can you imagine the consequences for manufacturers and retailers if all current smart phones were banned because they pose a growing risk of brain cancer and we were offered models that were less powerful (e.g. 0.5 GHz, not 4 GHz) and only operated for one hour per day to protect our health and mental sanity? Corporations, investors (and probably some of our pension funds) would take massive financial losses. Illegal sales of 4 GHz models would proliferate as they do even today for some long banned products (e.g. CFCs for car and truck air conditioners). Meanwhile the banned phones would be boxed up and shipped to the developing world so that the corporations could recover whatever investment had been made in the technology.
In sum, there is enormous economic and political power behind the corporations producing, importing and exporting hazardous substances and the governments and institutions that support them. In the end, I suspect that more responsible practices in regards to toxic products are probably much more attainable than outright bans, at least in the short term.
It is true that asbestos is a very dangerous substance and that we may never be able to ensure it is both extracted and utilized in a safe, sustainable and responsible manner. It is also true that Canada’s support of the industry gives our nation a black eye in the international community. However, banning the substance outright, while a laudable goal, may not be entirely realistic as long as the Harper government remains in power in Ottawa.
Some people think asbestos is no longer is used at all in Canada. In a recent editorial, The Globe and Mail claimed that asbestos no longer is used in Canada. However, in 2009 according to data published on the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) web site, more than 25 Ontario facilities disposed of or discharged asbestos on-site or off-site. (For additional background, see the appendices of my recently published book, Risky Business: The Use, Management, Transport and Disposal of Asbestos in Ontario (2012), available in hard copy or a Kindle on Amazon.)
I wrote a letter to the editor of The Globe pointing out that the NPRI data collected and published by Environment Canada as required by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 shows that asbestos indeed still is being used across Canada and it is disposed of in regular landfills but my letter was not published by The Globe.