While Protecting Its Own Citizens from Asbestos, Canada Aims to Keep Selling to Other Countries

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Stacy Cattran is the first to admit why she is furious that Canadian officials continue their long, shameful tradition of propping up the nation’s asbestos industry. Her father, after years of unknowingly inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers while working as an electrician, died in 2008 from mesothelioma, a particularly lethal cancer caused by the toxic mineral.

So how, she wonders, can anyone in Canada justify trying to keep the domestic industry alive, even as the product is estimated by the World Health Organization to kill 107,000 people a year?

“It’s not ignorance. They know better,” she said. “It is greed and power, and the mentality of ‘jobs-at-any-cost.’”

Cattran is the co-founder of Canadian Voices of Asbestos Victims. She has worked to raise awareness of the deaths the nation’s asbestos industry has caused.

The latest reason for her outrage is a proposed $58 million loan guarantee from the Quebec provincial government intended to revive Canada’s once-powerful, but now nearly moribund, asbestos industry. That loan guarantee would be used to reopen the Jeffrey Mine — once the world’s biggest source of asbestos — if private investors first can come up with $25 million for the project.

It’s not just that aid, however, that galls Cattran. The government also has provided funding to the Chrysotile Institute in Montreal, a group that promotes the “controlled” use of asbestos in manufacturing and construction, and offers assistance to similar organizations around the world.

She points, as well, to the continuing efforts by Canada’s Conservative Party to block international moves to discourage the use of the mineral, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

But more than anything, Cattran is appalled by her government’s hypocrisy. It is dramatically reducing the mineral’s use in Canada – an acknowledgement of how dangerous asbestos is – while encouraging exports to developing countries. “It just doesn’t make sense,” Cattran said.

Scientists fear that the continued use of asbestos will prolong the international epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma and lung cancer, that began long ago. An estimated 125 million people are exposed to asbestos each year in workplaces around the world.

The Canadian government has spent millions of dollars in recent years removing asbestos from schools, businesses, homes — and even Parliament buildings. After all, government officials want to be safe. Yet officials also are willing to authorize spending millions more to restart asbestos mining in Quebec, with the aim of generating jobs and resurrecting the lucrative asbestos-export business.

There is great demand for chrysotile asbestos, used as an inexpensive building material, in places like China, India, Thailand, Mexico and Pakistan, where it is mixed in cement to make corrugated roofing and to strengthen insulation.

Although today asbestos is banned or severely restricted in more than 50 countries, and is little-used in the United States, the Chrysotile Institute for years has lobbied internationally for the product.

For instance, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pushed for a complete ban in the late 1980s, the Chrysotile Institute helped with an industry lawsuit that defeated the agency’s efforts. When France banned asbestos in the 1990s, that same Canadian group again tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to overturn the move.

No country has worked as vigorously to keep asbestos use alive as Canada. The nation’s industry thrived for more than a century before hitting hard times. The last two asbestos mines in Canada closed late in 2011, beset with financial problems and environmental concerns.

For years, industry proponents have insisted that chrysotile asbestos can be considerably safer than other dangerous asbestos minerals. The Chrysotile Institute has produced studies suggesting that it can be handled safely, and that the risks have been exaggerated. Those findings, however, are hotly disputed by a wide range of health organizations from around the world.

Part of the problem is that the latency period with mesothelioma and lung cancer can be so lengthy (10 to 50 years between exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of illness) that the long-term health implications take a back seat to the short-term economic benefits in developing countries. Asbestos, after all, is excellent for fire-proofing, resisting heat and making building materials sturdier.

And the Canadian government is happy to help make it available. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has defied critics, both at home and abroad, who denounce Canada’s backing of the asbestos industry.

“The government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted,” Harper said in a news conference last year. “There are many countries, in which it is legal, where there are buyers.”

That infuriates anti-asbestos activists like Cattron.

“Canada is the only first-world country that promotes the continued use of asbestos,” she said. “This is the perfect opportunity to let this appalling industry die.”

Tim Povtak is a senior writer for the Mesothelioma Center, a website sponsored by The Peterson Firm, a Washington-based law firm specializing in asbestos litigation.

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4 comments to “While Protecting Its Own Citizens from Asbestos, Canada Aims to Keep Selling to Other Countries”

  1. Leah Nielsen

    I am wondering if Mr. Versailles, PR guy for the asbestos industry, would be willing to live in a house made of asbestos cement built to third standards. Yes, it is encapsulated IN THE BEGINNING. Do you want to fix something? A nail goes in – the asbestos is released. Is there an earthquake? The asbestos is released. Is there a tsunami? The asbestos is released. I realize that Quebec doesn’t experience any of these weather-related issues, so it obviously isn’t something they want to dwell on. The sad fact is that in most of the third world and developing nations where Canada wants to ship asbestos these catastrophes are common. Here is a link about an Australian who survived Mt. Everest, yet succumbed to meso at the young age of 56 BECAUSE HE HELPED HIS FATHER BUILD HOMES FROM CEMENT BOARD WITH ENCAPSULATED ASBESTOS. http://www.smh.com.au/national/adventurer-who-survived-everest-dies-from-asbestos-exposure-20120321-1vkdh.html
    If these asbestos exporters really were humanitarians they would be helping these people build homes that were not filled with carcinogens.

  2. Laura Guill

    There’s an old saying; “A mistake occurs once, the second time is a choice”. The Asbestos Industry and Canadian Government may have made a mistake initially but when people started getting sick and dying, the Asbestos Industry and Government both made the choice to continue to the industry in Canada. Next week my family will mourn the 2nd anniversary of the day the Asbestos Industry and Canadian Government’s choice cost us to suffer the loss of my father. The sad reality is my father’s suffering and ultimately death weren’t part of a mistake, it was the result of the Asbestos Industry and Canadian Government’s choice to continue packaging asbestos in Canada long after they knew that it was going to cost thousands of lives and made a clear choice to conceal that information in order to profit. With this in mind, how are we ever suppose to trust anyone from the Asbestos Industry and the Canadian Government’s word or so called studys? We already know those who profit from Asbestos have no problem with chosing to plague thousands with death sentences. Today they claim the past was just a mistake, how many times can the same mistake be made and accepted? As for accurate statistics, please keep in mind that thousands of people like my father have been tested and told they simply must have a history of asthma, they aren’t infected by occupational disease; thus causing many to suffer and die in silence and not be accounted for. Unless their families insist on an autopsy and pay for the autopsy their deaths go unaccounted for within the asbestos related deaths statistics. So the one thing I agree with Mr. Versailles about is the statistics aren’t accurate; what he fails to acknowledge is the statistics are far lower than the actual number of deaths. My father died a few days after his 59th birthday, but he suffered for many years as absestos sucked the life out him; slowly causing his vital organs to shut down one at a time and leaving him to rely on a machine to breathe. I can no longer be proud to say I am Canadian because the Asbestos Industry and Government are hand in hand in continuing to deliver death sentences and causing one of the greatest shames to mark our nation. Asbestos must be banned, let us learn from history and not let it continue to repeat itself over and over again.

  3. Hindry Marc

    This article is right on almost everything except one point. The truth is that the Quebec government is so committed to sustain the dying canadian asbestos mining industry that it FAILS to protect its population. Québec “enjoys” one of the highest rate of mesothelioma (the cancer of the pleura specific to asbestos) on the planet. A recent study by Québec health institute showed 100% failure of protection protocols in factories where asbestos is still used in Québec.

    M. Versailles is the spokeperson of Balcorp, a Company that sells Canadian asbestos mainly to India, a country where the standards of safety are much, much lower even than in Québec.

    Claiming that “the world has been asking WHO” for explanations is just ridiculous, the “world”, at least the part of it that is concerned with human life and not with companies profit knows very well that the World Health Organisation (WH0), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Canadian Cancer society, the Canadian Medical Association and ALL respectable health institution throughout the world condemn the use of asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos which represents more than 95% of asbestos. The figure of 107 000 deaths per year due to asbestos is by the way an underestimation, but still a very serious epidemiologic figure.

    Even the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has condemned Canada in 2000 (and again in appeal in 2001), when the Canadian Government challenged the ban of asbestos in France, and recognized the “safe use” was impossible to implement!

    Asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos, is not only banned throughout Europe, it is banned in more than fifty countries including Argentina, Chili and Uruguay in South America, Japan and Korea in Asia, Algeria and South Africa (once a big producer) in Africa.

    The other plain truth is that no one needs asbestos apart the handful of ruthless businessmen making money selling it. Production of asbestos in Canada has stopped, it is clearly time for Canada to put an end to this deadly and immoral trade, which, by the way, has been costing a lot of money to Canadian taxpayers for more than twenty years.

  4. Guy Versailles

    DISCLAIMER: I represent the chrysotile industry.

    First a word about the past. Everyone acknowledges the terrible legacy of the past, where amphibole asbestos was mixed with chrysotile asbestos ( a mistake since amphiboles have been proven to be much more dangerous than chrysotile) and then used improperly in loose insulation (a second mistake since this could easily be released in the air). Today, amphiboles are banned and in all modern products the chrysotile is encapsulated into another substance such as cement, resins, or asphalt and cannot be breathed in. it is the OLD products that are being taken out; many MODERN products are being installed in Canada today, mostly fiber-cement pipes with some 6 to 8 % chrysotile mixed into the cement; these are perfectly safe. We are not expecting the victims and their families to approve of any type of asbestos, their grief is understandable and must be respected. The media, however, have a responsibility to provide balanced information.

    It is not the government that has curtailed asbestos usage in Canada, it is the market, responding to diminishing demand (small wonder, given the intensive campaign waged against chrysotile for so many years).

    Chrysotile is used in the majority of countries in the world that represent at least 65 % of the world’s population. These countries have access to the same studies we have and they are not hell-bent on poisoning their population; they use it because they need it and because they know they can do so safely. Canada is far from being the only country in the world opposed to the ban; India, Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico, most of Latin America and Asia also are. But they are much less vocal about it that the proponents of the ban are, as usually happens.

    As for the WHO’s 100,000 deaths per year caused by asbestos, the world has been asking for years for the hard data behind this figure, and the world is still waiting. The truth is that no one knows and as such this figure means nothing; we need to know what type of asbestos these people would have been exposed to, for how long and in what concentrations. This hard knowledge would allow to plan for remedial action where it is most needed. But the figure as it is used serves no other purpose than to scare people.

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