The continued sale of Quebec’s asbestos is indefensible

Thu, Jan 13, 2011

In the media

An op-ed from the January 8, 2011 edition of the Montreal Gazette.

Premier Jean Charest and the asbestos lobby have had to come up with some new arguments to defend Quebec’s export of asbestos.

Their usual arguments -that Quebec’s chrysotile asbestos is less harmful than other forms of asbestos and can be safely used -have been exposed as groundless by provincial, national and international medical authorities, who are appalled by Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper denying the science and putting politics ahead of human life.

Today, chrysotile asbestos represents all of the world’s asbestos trade. What Quebec sells is the same asbestos that Russia and Kazakhstan sells. In the past century, 181 million tonnes of asbestos were sold. Of this, 173 million tonnes were chrysotile asbestos. Historically, chrysotile asbestos represents 95 per cent of all asbestos ever sold.

Not a single reputable medical association agrees with Charest and Harper that chrysotile asbestos can be “safely used.” Instead, they say it should be banned.

The Charest and Harper governments and the asbestos lobby are, in fact, one and the same. Every year the Quebec and Canadian governments fund the industry’s registered lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, to the tune of about half a million dollars. Representatives of both governments sit on its board of directors.

What does this say about the health of our democracy, when taxpayers are funding an industry lobby group to lobby government for industry-friendly policies and to deny independent science?

The governments’ new arguments to defend selling asbestos are as worthless as the old ones. Here they are, with our response:

If Quebec stops exporting asbestos, Russia will export more. Nothing will be gained.

This argument is similar to the argument that, if we don’t export landmines, another country will. Or someone in court arguing “If I hadn’t robbed the bank, someone else would have.” Even putting aside the questionable ethics, it is a false argument.

The Quebec government is a key asset to global asbestos sales, using the credibility of the Quebec and Canadian flags to assure developing countries that asbestos can be safely used. Russia lacks the international credibility to play this role.

Documents obtained under Access to Information in 2006 by the Globe and Mail reveal an agreement whereby other asbestos-exporting countries like Russia keep their prices artificially high so as to protect the Quebec asbestos industry, on condition that Canada act as global propagandist for asbestos.

Without Quebec’s help, Russia would have a harder time selling asbestos.

As long as countries haven’t banned asbestos, it is legitimate to export it.

When industrialized countries began banning chrysotile asbestos 20 years ago, the industry decided to target developing countries. The Chrysotile Institute was created for this purpose. All its activities promote asbestos in the developing world.

Whenever professionals and governments in developing countries try to ban asbestos, the industry intervenes to defeat their efforts. On behalf of the asbestos industry, Canada filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization, arguing that it would violate WTO trade rules for a country to ban asbestos.

In one of its rare rulings putting health ahead of trade rights, the WTO rejected Canada’s case twice.

At the UN and in Chile, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Thailand, South Korea, Mexico and elsewhere, the Quebec asbestos lobby has intervened to block efforts to control or ban asbestos. A recent investigative report by the BBC noted that, “but for the quick actions of the Canadian-led lobby,” Peru would have banned asbestos.

Quebec is recognized by the world health community as a major obstacle to progress in banning asbestos in developing countries.

Quebec will carry out an annual audit to ensure 100-per-cent rigorous standards.

A two-year study by Quebec health authorities reported a zero success rate in following “safe use” standards in the handful of Quebec industries still using asbestos. The Chrysotile Institute says overseas a 99.8-per-cent “safe use” success rate has been achieved and an annual audit will ensure a 100-per-cent success rate.

Even if one believed this amazing claim, the audit would cover only 0.1 per cent of the life of Quebec’s asbestos overseas. Once asbestos-cement products leave the factory, they are dispersed to thousands of villages and cities, hammered and cut by hundreds of thousands of workers and damaged in storms; broken pieces are reused for decades, exposing large numbers of people to inhaling deadly asbestos fibres.

The Quebec and Canadian governments stand naked before the court of world opinion on the asbestos issue. Every justification they have given is false.

If Charest this month gives the consortium of foreign investors $58-million financing to restart Quebec’s asbestos trade, he will be contributing to an epidemic of asbestos deaths in the developing world for decades to come, to the everlasting shame of Quebec and Canada.

Kathleen Ruff, senior human-rights adviser, Rideau Institute
Fernand Turcotte, professor emeritus of public health, Universite Laval
Abby Lippman, professor in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health, McGill University
Edward W. Keyserlingk, former director of the biomedical ethics unit, McGill faculty of medicine
Louise Vandelac, director of l’Institut des sciences de l’environnement, Universite du Quebec a Montreal
Eric Notebaert, professor in the faculty of medicine, Universite de Montreal
John Keyserlingk, Montreal surgeon

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