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

(iStockphoto)

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.