Federal government continues to ‘wrestle’ with asbestos issue: Strahl

Thu, Nov 26, 2009


The Hill Times, June 22nd, 2009
By Harris MacLeod
Federal government continues to ‘wrestle’ with asbestos issue: Strahl
Ottawa spends millions to remove asbestos from Parliament Buildings, but dumps 200,000 tonnes of it per year in Third World countries.

Federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, who was diagnosed in 2005 with a rare and terminal form of lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure when he once worked in a road construction and logging business, says the federal government continues to “wrestle” with the ethical issues of Canada being one of the world’s last asbestos producers and exporters, even as it continues to subsidize the asbestos industry that sells huge amounts of the material to developing countries.

The government’s official position is that the kind of asbestos still being produced in Thetford Mines, Que., called chrysotile asbestos, is safe if handled properly.

But a recent CBC report showed workers in India, which imports thousands of tonnes of Canadian asbestos, fluffing the hazardous material while mixing it with cotton, some with only a bandana tied around their mouths for protection. The CBC also interviewed people who were already suffering the effects of handling asbestos, which once it enters the lungs cannot be broken down by the body and causes severe scarring, cancer, and death.

“The issue that I think people need to wrestle with in industry and government is how can you be assured that what happens to [the asbestos] after it leaves your hands doesn’t cause problems,” Mr. Strahl (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, B.C.) told The Hill Times last week.

Mr. Strahl said that the type of asbestos that caused his cancer, which he inhaled from asbestos-lined break pads on the logging truck he drove as a young man, is different from what Canada is exporting today. He said he supports efforts to make the material safer, but that there are no guarantees it’s being used safely when it leaves Canada.

“What they’ve tried to do with chrysotile asbestos is try to find a safe way to use it that’s less carcinogenic than other types. They’re trying to use it in a safe way. The difficulty always is what happens to it when it leaves your control,” Mr. Strahl said.

Canada’s decades-old asbestos industry used to be a source of national pride, there’s even a town, Asbestos, Que., named after the material that was once hailed as a “magic mineral.”

But by the 1960s and ’70s when the instances of severe asbestos-related health problems increased, the industry began to collapse, and is now confined to the province of Quebec, where it employs less than 500 people.

But the government provided the Asbestos Institute, an organization that promotes the product abroad, with $250,000 in its 2009 budget, and holds junkets in Canadian embassies to promote the asbestos industry. It also sat on a report commissioned by Health Canada, that indicated there was a strong link between chrysotile asbestos and lung cancer, for more than a year until it was finally released under an Access to Information request by Canwest News Service.

Critics charge that the government’s support of the industry is for political reasons because asbestos is a political “hot potato” in Quebec.

“No federal government in the last 100 years has had the courage to standup to the asbestos cartel. The asbestos cartel has a stranglehold over the commonsense and reasoning of Canadian governments and it’s all because of where the mines are,” said NDP MP Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, Man.) who once worked at an asbestos mine in the Yukon.

Mr. Martin pointed out that the mine he worked at, as well as mines in Newfoundland, and Ontario all closed due to “normal market forces” but Quebec’s asbestos industry is being kept alive on life-support for political reasons.

Mr. Martin said that the recent CBC documentary that attracted political attention in the House of Commons has “breathed new life” into the campaign to ban all forms of asbestos. In addition to exposing the unsafe way that Canadian asbestos is being used in India, it showed the ongoing process of removing asbestos from the Parliament Buildings, which Mr. Martin called a “glaring hypocrisy.”

“They’re spending millions of dollars removing asbestos from the Parliament Buildings because no MP should ever be exposed to a single fibre, yet we’re dumping 200,000 tonnes per year into Third World countries where the workers haven’t got a chance to defend themselves,” he said.

Mr. Martin also lashed out at the Liberals, both for their inaction on the asbestos issue while they were in government, and also for what he calls Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ont.) “dramatic flip flop” on asbestos exports.

“I’m probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I’m unaware, but if asbestos is bad for Parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else,” Mr. Ignatieff said in response to a question at a town hall meeting in B.C. in March.

But after a backlash from government and industry, he tempered his position to say that Canada has an obligation to warn other countries of the dangers of asbestos.

“[Mr. Ignatieff] hadn’t been briefed on the politics and he’d been out of the country for a while so I guess he missed what a hot potato asbestos in Quebec is, and he answered honestly. It’s not often you get an honest answer from a guy like that without it being screened by his high priced help. But as soon as they got him behind closed doors they fixed that in a hurry,” Mr. Martin said.

Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Ont.) said she is personally opposed to allowing asbestos exports to continue, but she stopped short of saying that it was the official position of the Liberal Party.

“We’re working on it. It’s always been a work in progress in terms of bringing everyone onside, but I think there’s an emerging consensus, that’s for sure,” Ms. Bennett said.

Ms. Bennett said there should be a plan in place to help the remaining asbestos workers transition into new livelihoods, and she also acknowledged that Liberal MPs from Quebec have been “more difficult to persuade” that there should be an absolute ban on asbestos. But she said the tide is starting to turn and Quebec Liberal MPs like Francis Scarpallegia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.) and Raymonde Folco (Laval-Les Îles, Que.) have come out against the use of it.

“We don’t allow it here, any of it, and so I personally don’t think the standard should be any different around the world,” said Ms. Bennett.

On June 11, the day after the CBC The National’s documentary was aired, Public Works and Government Services Minister Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Érable, Que.) defended Canada’s asbestos industry.

Declared Mr. Paradis: “The policy is clear and remains unchanged. The safe use of chrysotile fibre is being promoted, here in Canada and everywhere else in the world. It is false to say that the industry is being subsidized. The Chrysotile Institute is mandated by the federal government, the Government of Quebec and the union of chrysotile workers to promote its safe use, here in Canada and internationally.”

—With files from Bea Vongdouangchanh


The Hill Times

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