Though there have been efforts to phase it out at home, it is anticipated that the Canadian government will be lobbying against the inclusion of a type of asbestos on a watch list of the world’s most dangerous substances in UN negotiations later this week.
In a harsh editorial published in its latest issue, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) is condemning what it calls the Canadian government’s "death-dealing charade" in exporting and promoting asbestos outside of Canada – mostly in developing nations.
Tomorrow’s talks in Rome will focus on whether chrysotile asbestos should be recognized as a hazardous substance on a list known worldwide as the Rotterdam Convention. Though this doesn’t ban the stuff outright, it means that countries must give their informed consent prior to importation.
In the last round of talks during 2006, Canada partnered with Iran, Zimbabwe and Kyrgyzstan to spearhead a successful campaign to prevent the addition of asbestos to the list - the only western nation to do so.
Canadian government's asbestos stance "reeks of hypocrisy"
Though at first glance this may not make any sense, the fact is asbestos mining is a $110-million global industry that finds applications in cement-making, roofing shingles and the like, and it becomes clear that there’s a lot of dirty money to be made. Quebec is also a major industry leader, with asbestos mining providing 700 jobs in the province.
Due to health concerns and the risk of lawsuits, asbestos is no longer used much in Canada. However, 95 percent of Canadian asbestos is exported, mainly to India, Thailand and Indonesia, with Ottawa spending upwards of $20 million since the mid-1980s to encourage chrysotile asbestos as a safer alternative:
Canada maintains that its export trade need not be dangerous, if the importing countries practise safe use and put "regulations, programs and practices equivalent to Canada's ... in place." This argument seems self-serving. Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely, and so they transitioned to using effective and affordable alternatives. For Canada to pretend that India, Thailand and Indonesia can succeed in managing asbestos safely, when developed countries have failed, is fanciful.
After all, asbestos has been linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, all chronic and potentially lethal respiratory diseases. A panel convened by Canada’s health ministry completed a study on the health risks of asbestos back in March 2008. Yet the report has not been publicly released, with the CMAJ indicating that "the blockage is in the prime minister's office."
According to David Boyd, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and one of the editorial's authors, many public-health officials agree that asbestos needs to be eliminated. "Canada really sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to not only exporting it, but promoting it as well."