But are Charest and Harper offering a chalice or handing employers in developing nations the Blade of Death?
The announcement late last week (June 29, 2012) that the Canadian asbestos industry may have just been given a second lease on life surprised few experts in the environmental and occupational health and safety (OHS) areas, especially those of us who grew up in Quebec, like me. On Friday, the Quebec government announced that it would loan $58 million to cover costs of renovating and reopening the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec. This means that production at the mine could continue for at least another 20 years.
As a long-term student of Canadian political economy and a big fan of notable academics and critics such as Harold Innis, Walter Gordon and Eric Kierans, I was amazed the announcement took so long. We in Canada have a long history of fostering economic development based on single-industry towns such as Asbestos, Quebec. Senior governments are then forced to intervene after the resource is depleted or demand collapses, leaving local residents to organize and save their community.
At its peak, the Canadian asbestos industry was an economic “superpower” that dominated the international market and pumped money into small Quebec and Canadian communities. However, increasing scientific evidence that asbestos is related to various forms of cancer and diseases has turned the asbestos industry into a target. With the decline in demand for asbestos in the past five years, the Canadian industry began to spiral into a black hole; thus, the primary rationale for this rescue package.
While the Charest government’s decision to make the $58-million loan is not without controversy, the logic of the investment warrants careful review. The Canadian Cancer Society has noted that this decision will be yet another stain on Canadian international reputation, noting that about 107,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases annually, and that all forms of asbestos cause cancer. Further, hundreds of scientists from 28 countries previously urged the Quebec premier to recognize the danger posed by asbestos and its export. Is this an investment that will prove to be sustainable in the long term? Or is it a crass, cynical attempt to curry favour in a riding the Quebec Liberals hope to retain in the next election – one that was recently subject to political boundary changes and that the Liberals have held since 1981?
Since I grew up in “La Belle Province” and my paternal grandmother was French Canadian, I feel a particular affinity for its landscape, artists, musicians and rich political and social culture. I also have a strong interest in asbestos regulation because my dad, Stanley C. McRobert, worked with friable (or loose) asbestos, insulating various equipment for heavy vehicles in his late teens and early twenties. In the 1950s, when my dad did this work, most Canadians had been led to believe that asbestos was a miracle product; he didn’t even wear a face mask, although I am sure he sometimes found himself choking on the airborne fibres that surrounded him as he worked to pack the asbestos insulation.
In some ways, my dad’s exposure was analogous to byssinosis – also called “brown lung disease” – an occupational lung disease caused by exposure to cotton dust in inadequately ventilated working environments. Byssinosis commonly occurs in workers who are employed in the yarn and fabric manufacture industries, but most experts argue that the cotton dust does not directly cause the disease. Instead, these experts argue that the causative agents are endotoxins originating from the cell walls of gram negative bacteria that grow on the cotton.
When my dad began to suffer serious respiratory problems in his mid-60s, considerable evidence pointed to asbestos as the cause of his decreased lung function. On December 24, 2007 he died of a massive heart attack at 74 years young, although he was in fairly good health even in his final years. He enjoyed skiing, wind surfing, tennis, golf and canoeing, taking full advantage of all the natural and rugged beauty surrounding the “cottage retreat” he and my mom built on the shores of Lac Tremblant in 1971. He never smoked cigarettes, ate well, and looked after himself.
One of my dad’s biggest health problems in his later years was that his lung capacity kept shrinking as the pleura began to fill with fluid. By the time he died, his lungs were working at an estimated 30 per cent of their original efficiency, which put tremendous pressure on his heart. While medicine has always been a combination of art and science, the science seemed to point to asbestos exposure as the main cause for my father’s lung problems in his late 60s and early 70s.
Miracle Fibrous Mineral and Potent Carcinogen
Asbestos is a generic name given to a family of fibrous silicate minerals. However, the most common and only type of asbestos that is still exported is chrysotile asbestos. Because asbestos can withstand corrosive chemicals and high temperatures, it has been widely used in North America as an insulating and fireproofing substance. By the 1980s, asbestos could be found in more than 3,000 commercially manufactured products such as building materials, shingles, roofing materials, paper products, brakes and other friction products, textiles, packings, and gaskets.
Whether the negatives of the asbestos industry outweigh the positives continues to be highly debated. There is a multitude of scientific evidence that has linked human health risks to the improper handling of asbestos and asbestos wastes. Further, this evidence is not the result of a recent discovery. Rather, the risks posed to human health by asbestos have been fairly well understood since the 1930s.
Asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers of various sizes are released into the air and inhaled. Dry asbestos that can be crumbled or crushed is known as friable asbestos. This type of asbestos is particularly hazardous because of the ease with which fibers are released into the air. Once released, asbestos fibers are so small that you would need to bundle about 600 fibers together just to equal the thickness of a single human hair!
It is in fact the very size of asbestos fibers that makes them so dangerous. Because the fibers are such a micro-size, they can easily travel through the upper airway and lodge in the lungs. Unfortunately, the body has no effective mechanism for removing them.
Several diseases can result from asbestos exposure depending on the type and dimension of the asbestos, as well as the duration of the exposure. For instance, someone who is exposed to high levels of asbestos over a period of time may develop malignant mesothelioma or lung cancer. Many experts believe there is no safe level of exposure, but the higher the level of exposure, the higher the risk of disease.
Another problematic aspect of asbestos is the long latency period between exposure and illness. This latency period can range from 10 to 40 years before symptoms are noticeable. According to most experts, exposure to asbestos is predominantly an occupational risk rather than an environmental risk. It should be noted, however, that in some occupational sectors risk of asbestos exposure has been almost entirely eliminated through the use of training and proper equipment requirements.
At the 2006 International Labour Conference, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a resolution for the elimination of all forms of asbestos. The resolution was passed on the basis that all forms of asbestos are classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. While it appears that the incidences of asbestos-related diseases in developed nations such as Canada and the United States will continue to decrease over the following decades, the number of incidences is expected to grow in newly-industrialized and developing countries such as India.
While asbestos is an increasingly regulated product by the Canadian government, the government has simultaneously promoted the trade and export of asbestos to nations that do not yet have regulations, or that do not take their environmental and OHS regulations seriously. For instance, even though India has an official ban on the import and export of asbestos, media reports indicate that ships laden with asbestos, waste and other products can be found in the harbours of large and small Indian cities.
The Canadian government has consistently resisted regulations and blocked attempts to ban the trade of asbestos on an international scale. For instance, in the past decade Canada argued at the World Trade Organization that France could not ban the import of asbestos products. The government argued that any such ban would be a breach under trade regulation laws. Canada also voted against including asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent list at the Rotterdam Convention. As of 2011, Canada is the only G8 nation that has objected to the listing. The Canadian government is thus making deliberate decisions to promote our industry or is willfully blind to the impacts of promoting asbestos in other countries with less stringent regulations.
As of 2008, India was one of the largest consumers of asbestos on the planet. However, what has not been widely reported in Canada and most developed nations is that India also has a very high growth rate for asbestos victims. In India it is estimated that approximately 30 workers die every day from past asbestos exposure.
Under South Africa’s new government order, employers must register all materials containing asbestos, conduct risk assessments, educate and inform employees, provide employees with protection, as well as conduct regular dust and health surveillance. Unfortunately, no similar provisions apply to employers operating in India. The objective of the new South African regulation is to ultimately prohibit the use, processing and manufacturing of asbestos products unless there are no other sustainable alternatives.
The Indian government seems to be prioritizing its alliance with the Canadian and Russian asbestos industries, rather than fostering, reflecting and demonstrating concern about the health of its citizens and residents. This situation is made worse due to the problems that arise regarding the safe use and handling of asbestos in India. Many small manufacturers are unorganized and may not be able to invest in the necessary equipment to protect their workers from asbestos exposure. However, India’s position may be changing. In 2011, the Indian government voted to add asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention hazardous chemicals and substances list.
Although Canada has claimed it does not export asbestos to countries which do not follow Canadian regulations for the handling and control of asbestos, Canadian agencies have no authority to monitor foreign nations or the companies within their territories. Accordingly, this claim rings hollow.
At the same time it seems conceivable that it would be possible to ensure that asbestos was used more safely in developing nations if we continue to insist that asbestos can offer economic and social benefits for them. My father was a mechanical engineer through training and inclination, and he often insisted that there were technological options to address most environmental and OHS problems providing that consumers were willing to pay and governments willing to regulate. I didn’t always agree – some problems often are best solved using socio-cultural mechanisms, economic instruments or public education. For example, deposit-refund systems are a proven technology for collecting certain used and recyclable materials such as used containers and depleted batteries. The Blue Box system and other voluntary programs can never compete on the basis of environmental and energy performance. Whether these others options – whether they are technological solutions or economic instruments – are explored is usually a matter of political will because they almost always involve additional expenditures and behaviour changes by governments, industries and/or consumers. My experience suggests that full cost economic analyses almost always favour improved environmental protection and improved OHS standards but many of us are reluctant to pay more to prevent future problems and change our habits.
A Challenge to Harper and Charest: Offer a chalice, not the blade
In her acclaimed international bestseller The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future (Harper Collins San Francisco, 1987), Riane Eisler proposes that we need new categories of analyses that go beyond conventional ones such as religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. communist, Eastern vs. Western, and industrial vs. pre- or post- industrial because these approaches no longer accurately reflect the breadth of the beliefs and institutions in most developed nations. She has coined the term “dominator culture” to describe a system of top-down testosterone-driven power structures ultimately backed by fear or force.
As a Canadian, my question to Jean Charest and Stephen Harper is this: do you wish to be part of a dominator culture that presses developing nations to hold the blade of death over the heads of their workers (and their young families who may experience the early death of their loved parent?) Or do you want to offer a chalice filled with wine or an appropriate celebratory beverage to officially announce your support for proven safer use and application of asbestos and assistance with meaningful education and technology transfer to those countries?
I know how I would like Jean Charest and Stephen Harper to answer this question. And I would even be willing to send them a couple bottles of the wine I make at a wine-making establishment in Peterborough to help them make the right decision; their choices would include oak-aged Chardonnay or a Merlot-Shiraz combo. But I would need them to return my glass bottles for reuse.
For additional background on the health impacts of asbestos, see 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.
Coming in Part Two: 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 1980s and continue to use to this day?
Photo 1: “Pure White” Asbestos Snow Decoration
Asbestos snow. Such a “real-life” product gives additional meaning to the concept of “non-occupational” exposure to asbestos.