Waste & Recycling


Asbestos subsidies: Canada’s shame

Last week a post from our new regular online columnist David McRobert wrote Part 1 of a two-part article (http://bloghm.hazmatmag.com/2012/07/asbestos_industry_given_58m_le.htm) on asbestos in Canada and new subsidies from the Quebec government to prop up the industry and allow the re-opening of a mine in Asbestos, Quebec.
While he’s no fan of asbestos or these subsidies, his position was nuanced.
I was contacted shortly after the article appeared by Kathleen Ruff, a former director of the BC Human Rights Commission and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World. (http://www.rideauinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/exportingharmweb.pdf) In 2011, she was awarded the National Public Health Hero Award by the Canadian Public Health Association for her work in exposing the inaccurate propaganda of the asbestos industry.
Ruff’s position is a bit different than McRobert’s in that she doesn’t support any mining and export of asbestos from Canada, period. She’s not convinced at all that warnings and instructions will lead to its safe use in places like India. I tend to agree with this. If this had taken place in the pages of the print magazine I would have invited Ruff to write a letter to the editor, which I would have published. This being cyberspace, I have chosen to invite her to write a blog entry of her own, and publish it in my space.
So, what follows is her online article about asbestos. What follows are her thoughts, not mine, but I’m quite supportive of what she writes.
Kathleen Ruff:
The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) has issued a Statement calling for a global ban on asbestos use. The ICOH notes that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have recommended that a total ban on production and use of all forms of asbestos is the best way to eliminate the occurrence of asbestos-related diseases. The WHO estimates that 107,000 workers die every year from asbestos.
Over 50 countries have already adopted a universal ban on all types of asbestos, based on recognition of the substantial human and economic burden of diseases caused by asbestos. Other countries, such as the United States and Canada have a de facto ban on asbestos and virtually no longer use it.
Industry Minister, Christian Paradis, who represents a Quebec asbestos-mining region and is the biggest political cheerleader for asbestos use (overseas, not in Canada), says that the reason Canada no longer uses asbestos is because Canada no longer is involved in construction of buildings or infra-structure. This raises the question as to exactly what the billions of dollars, that the Canadian government gave for infrastructure projects across Canada over the past few years, were spent on.
Countries that used asbestos in the past are today experiencing epidemics of asbestos-related disease. In addition to the human suffering, billions of dollars are being spent on health-care costs for victims, remediation and removal of deteriorated asbestos from buildings, and compensation. In Quebec alone, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent removing asbestos from schools and hospitals.
The asbestos industry claims asbestos poses no risk to health because 90 per cent of it is mixed with cement to make construction materials, like roofing, and the fibres are not free in the air to be breathed in and cause disease. They are right, of course. Just as a cigarette does not pose a threat to health while it is in the packet. It is when you use these products in the anticipated manner, by cutting the construction materials or smoking the cigarette, that these products pose a deadly threat.
The WHO notes that asbestos-cement construction materials represent a particularly serious hazard, since these materials are distributed widely, are sawed, hammered and broken by workers, who do not even know the product contains asbestos and have no awareness anyway that asbestos poses a risk.
The asbestos industry gives glib assurance that asbestos exported from Quebec is used under “rigorous safety controls” in factories overseas. However, most people who die from asbestos are exposed to it during the 99.9 per cent of its life cycle, after the asbestos-containing product leaves the factory and is placed in buildings. There are no safety regulations in these countries to protect workers handling asbestos-cement construction materials or to protect the population when asbestos-cement roofing deteriorates or is broken in renovation or in natural disasters.
When asked how he will ensure that people overseas are protected from asbestos harm during the 99.9 per cent of its lifecycle, the Quebec Minister of Economic Development, Clément Gignac said “that isn’t our problem.”
The asbestos industry claims to have achieved a 99.8 per cent success rate of “safe use” of asbestos in factories in countries like India. A Quebec government investigation documented that in the handful of Quebec factories still using asbestos, there was a zero per cent success rate of “safe use.”
Minister Gignac could not explain this discrepancy. Nor could he explain why workers at a factory in India were handling Quebec asbestos with their bare hands, covered in asbestos fibres.
The Quebec government’s sixteen Directors of Public Health, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, Quebec’s prestigious National Institute of Public Health, all oppose the claim that asbestos can be “safely used.” They note, in Quebec itself, there is still no registry of where asbestos has been placed and workers and residents continue to be inadvertently exposed to asbestos.
The last two asbestos mines in Quebec are bankrupt and closed. But the Quebec government has given a $58 million loan to investors to open an underground asbestos mine (the Jeffrey mine, previously the Johns-Manville mine). The investors plan to export millions of tons of asbestos to Asia over the next couple of decades.
The scientific evidence of harm caused by asbestos is overwhelming. Some scientists, paid by the asbestos industry, try to create doubt, just as those working for the tobacco industry did for so long. But not a single reputable scientific authority in Canada or elsewhere supports continued use of asbestos.
While the asbestos industry has lost the scientific battle, its political triumph continues. Both the Harper and Charest governments thumb their noses at scientific experts and allow the asbestos industry to run Canada’s asbestos policy.
Around the world, scientists and health experts are appalled that Canada and Quebec are acting like backward, corrupt societies and causing unnecessary suffering and death overseas.
They are right to be appalled.

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