Quebec health officials speak out against asbestos

Sun, Dec 13, 2009

In the media

Quebec health officials speak out against asbestos

Critics send letter to federal Health Minister demanding action but risk backlash in province that mines the deadly mineral

Martin Mittelstaedt Environment Reporter, Dec. 2, 09

A number of prominent Quebec public health officials are among the signatories to a letter concerning asbestos sent to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, asking her to have the federal government end its support for the mining, use and export of the mineral.

The letter also calls on Ottawa to establish a registry of all buildings containing the substance and to create a national surveillance system to monitor asbestos-related diseases.

Concerns in Canada over the country’s promotion of asbestos have largely been an anglophone affair. Few Quebeckers have publicly criticized the continued use and export of the deadly, cancer-causing mineral, which, in Canada, is now mined only in Quebec.

But that could be changing.

Criticism of asbestos has “been a taboo for quite a while in Quebec. We’re trying to break that,” said Pierre Gosselin, professor in the faculty of medicine at Laval University and a researcher at the National Public Health Institute of Quebec, who signed the letter.

Speaking out in Quebec against asbestos has been akin to Newfoundlanders criticizing the seal hunt or Albertans the oil sands. Dr. Gosselin concedes that previously some individuals from Quebec have criticized asbestos and “suffered severe backlash on a personal basis and didn’t get much support,” but he said the medical evidence on its dangers are so overwhelming they can’t be ignored.

Another prominent Quebec signatory was Fernand Turcotte, emeritus professor at Laval’s faculty of medicine, but the letter was also endorsed by doctors at three other universities and a number of Quebec’s public health agencies.

The letter was sent to Ms. Aglukkaq jointly by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, an Ottawa-based think tank, but was also endorsed by the Canadian Cancer Society.

This is the first the time a federal health minister has been asked to take action on asbestos, and her reaction will be seen as a litmus test for her support of public health measures, according to supporters of the letter. Josée Bellemare, a spokesperson for Ms. Aglukkaq, said the minister will respond to the letter “in due course.”

Although many countries have banned asbestos as a health hazard, the federal government has spent about $20-million since the mid-1980s promoting its continued use under a policy that the cancer risks from the mineral can be minimized if proper precautions are taken.

About 95 per cent of Quebec’s asbestos, mined at one site employing about 400 people, is exported, the bulk of it to developing countries where it is an additive to cement building materials.

In Canada, asbestos is the main cause of workplace-related deaths caused by exposure to dangerous substances, according to the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. And Statistics Canada says that in 2006 there were 461 cases of mesothelioma, the cancer most directly caused by exposure to asbestos. That’s an increase in the country of 67 per cent from the early 1990s.

Although little asbestos is currently used in Canada, it was once common in building materials in piping and around boilers, representing a continuing cancer risk to construction and maintenance workers.

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