Canada's 'Double Standard' on Asbestos
Chrysotile asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and more than 40 jurisdictions have bans or restrictions on the mineral. There are many countries that still use the mineral, and last year Canada sold $77 million worth of it, mostly to developing countries.
Chrysotile asbestos will remain off a watch list of dangerous UN chemicals for at least another two years, say observers attending the Rotterdam Convention talks in Rome.
The focus of the talks was on whether to add the chrysotile variety of asbestos to the world's list of most dangerous substances. Once a substance is listed, countries must give prior informed consent that they know they are buying a highly dangerous material before being allowed to accept any imports.
On October 28, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines made their opposition to chrysotile's inclusion on the list known at the talks.
At the last round of the talks, in 2006, Canada successfully led a group of countries including Iran, Zimbabwe and Kyrgyzstan in stopping the action. Canada was the only advanced Western country to take such a position.
"Canada got others to do their dirty work for them," said New Democratic MP Pat Martin, who was in Rome as an observer. ''The first speakers were our biggest customers."
An editorial, appearing on October 21 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, had denounced the federal government for Canada's continued efforts to block international controls on asbestos at UN-sponsored negotiations.
An Editorial in Globe and Mail, titled Canada's double standard, published from Toronto, Canada, on October 21, stated, "By striving to protect the unregulated export of a carcinogen linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, the federal government is acting irresponsibly... Last week, our goverment led the world by adding bisphenol A to a list of toxic substances in order to protect Canadians even as other national governments have yet to acknowledge there is a public health risk. The same government has protected the unregulated export of a known carcinogen, mainly to developing countries. This inconsistency creates the impression that Canada is applying a double standard."
Quebec is a major asbestos miner, and the industry provides about 700 jobs in the province. Because of litigation risk and health concerns, Canada no longer uses much asbestos. About 95 per cent of domestic output is exported, mainly to developing countries, where it is added to cement building materials. Ottawa has spent about $20-million since the mid-1980s to promote asbestos use. It has contended that the chrysotile type mined in Quebec is less harmful than other varieties and that with proper safeguards, cancer risk can be minimized.
Asbestos dust causes lung cancer; mesothelioma, a painful and deadly malignancy in the lining of the chest wall; and asbestosis, a serious, chronic respiratory disease. The World Health Organization says all types of asbestos cause cancer and estimates the mineral leads to 100,000 preventable deaths annually around the world.
Chrysotile is the only type of asbestos remaining on the world market. The other forms have already been listed under the United Nations convention. The editorial marks the first time the medical association journal has spoken out forcefully about the federal government's asbestos position. The journal said in 2001 that an impartial, expert panel was needed to investigate public-health implications of using the mineral.
Health Canada has convened such a panel, which completed a study in March. But the panel's work has not been made public, and the CMAJ editorial says the journal's sources indicate "the blockage is in the prime minister's office."
The editorial says Canada's view that its asbestos is a less potent carcinogen is scientifically dubious and is "redolent of the tobacco industry's playbook on light cigarettes."
David Boyd, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and one of the editorial's authors, said a consensus has emerged among public-health officials that asbestos needs to be eliminated and that the government's actions are damaging Canada's international reputation. "Canada really sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to not only exporting it, but promoting it as well."
By Laurie Kazan-Allen
Canada, a country with an international reputation for protecting the environment, is engaged in the global trafficking of a lethal commodity. Between 1900 and 2000, mines in Québec, Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Yukon produced a total of 61 million tons of chrysotile (white asbestos). In recent years, Canada has exported more than 95% of all the asbestos it has produced, making it the 2nd biggest chrysotile exporter in the world. Canadian disinclination to use this carcinogenic substance at home reflects growing international reluctance to expose the public and the environment to well-established risks. Such civic concern does not, however, prevent asbestos stakeholders from promoting Canadian chrysotile for sale abroad, claiming it can be used "safely under controlled conditions." Such "controlled conditions" do not exist in Canada or the US and most definitely not in India, Thailand or Korea.
For decades, the Canadian asbestos industry has enjoyed close, some would say intimate, links with the Governments of Canada and Québec, both of which have been more than generous with their financial and political support. With the backing of the Canadian establishment, the industry suppressed public debate on asbestos, ensured that thousands of Canadian asbestos victims remained unacknowledged and created mountains of asbestos tailings which remain, to this day, untreated and unsecured.
Citing data from the International Labor Organization and independent medical experts, Laurie Kazan-Allen, one of the conference organizers and the Guest Editor of a special asbestos issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH), attempted to quantify the international epidemic of asbestos-related diseases. The number of work-related asbestos deaths has been estimated at 100,000 per year worldwide by one authority, who admits this is probably a serious underestimate. In Western Europe, epidemiologists predict that 500,000 asbestos-related male deaths will occur between 1995 and 2029. This appalling situation gives serious cause for concern. However, when public health campaigners speak out about the hazards of asbestos use, Laurie said, they are condemned by pro-chrysotile apologists as being ill-informed, hysterical or corrupt.
The three-day conference entitled Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern was the first international meeting to be held in Ottawa on September 13, 2003. The Canadian workers and asbestos victims were free to speak publicly about the damage done by the mining and use of Canadian chrysotile, September 13, 2003 in Ottawa, Canada
Dr. Tushar Kant Joshi (TK), Director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health in New Delhi, believes that up to 1 million people in India are currently being occupationally exposed to asbestos. Although the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization agree that the misuse of asbestos in developing countries is hazardous, neither body has credible data on the scale of the problem; this lack of information makes it possible for asbestos producers to continue off-loading this carcinogenic substance on consumers in emerging nations.
Annual asbestos consumption in India of 100,000 t cannot be satisfied by domestic mining companies which produce 20,000 t of fiber from operations in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. For 1997-1999, average annual imports of asbestos were 71,688 t. TK estimated that: "about three-fourths of the needs of Indian asbestos manufacturers are met through imports, mainly from Canada." Explaining the difficulty he had in obtaining a Canadian visa to attend the conference, TK observed that if the import and use of asbestos in developing countries was as strictly controlled as immigration to Canada, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved:
"Human biology is the same everywhere, if asbestos of all kinds including chrysotile/white asbestos is a carcinogen in over 30 countries how can it not be hazardous in India... How can we allow asbestos to cause havoc while waiting another 30-40 years for an Indian study to conclude that asbestos is a carcinogen."
It was a scandal that a country such as Canada was exposing innocent people in India and elsewhere to risks deemed too hazardous for Canadian citizens.
The view of others, including scientists, are available online.
[Source: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS)]
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