Asbestos Canada's latest sin
MARIANNE WHITE, Postmedia News
After the oilsands and the seal hunt, asbestos has become Canada's new sin, tarred as an evil at home and abroad.
In just three years, asbestos went from being one of the country's great exports, supported by all political parties at the House of Commons, to being vilified by politicians of all stripes, including some Conservatives.
"We've reached a tipping point in our attitude toward asbestos and so has the world. Canada's boy-scout image is being tarnished," said New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who has been fighting to ban asbestos mining since he was first elected in 1997.
"In many circles, we've become an international pariah. Clubbing baby seals, dumping asbestos in the Third World and tarsands are probably the three biggest embarrassments for Canada on the international stage," Martin said.
Canada's reputation took a hit earlier this year when the government blocked international efforts to label the chrysotile asbestos - the kind mined in Canada - as a hazardous material under the UN Rotterdam Convention.
The European Parliament also took shots at Canada earlier this year over the oilsands industry's environmental record, ongoing asbestos exports and the sealing industry.
In a news release, the members of parliament expressed concerns about the "serious harm to the health of workers mining asbestos, the processing and use of which is already banned in the EU."
In November, Australia's Upper House passed a motion urging the government to pressure Canada to stop producing and exporting asbestos - an insulating mineral used in construction that is linked to deadly lung diseases, including cancer.
Activists in Asian countries, notably in India, are increasingly holding demonstrations to protest against asbestos exports, which they say are causing harm to workers.
Mohit Gupta, coordinator of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India, called Canada's plan to eliminate tariffs on asbestos exports to India "an appalling travesty of all ethical codes of human behaviour."
"All of this is giving Canada an enormous black eye around the world. People can't believe that Canada is acting as a rogue country and that Canada is the biggest public-health obstacle internationally to making any progress on the asbestos issue," said Kathleen Ruff, a prominent anti-asbestos campaigner.
But for the president of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, activists are "unrelentingly and unfairly" attacking chrysotile asbestos.
"I've been working at the mine, first as an engineer, for 42 years. My son worked here for 15 years. Do you really think we'd be stupid enough to stay on if it were as dangerous as they are claiming?" asks Bernard Coulombe.
He doesn't deny asbestos is a carcinogen, but he stressed it can be harmful only if people are highly exposed and for a long period of time.
"Just like the sun, or alcohol. If you drink too much or lay naked in the sun for hours, it can be dangerous," he said.
The industry and the federal government maintain chrysotile asbestos is safe to handle as long as proper guidelines are followed.
The mineral is banned in Canada and the government is spending millions to remove it from buildings across the country, including the Parliament buildings and the prime minister's residence.
Critics in Canada and overseas have been particularly concerned about exports to developing countries, such as India, that they say lack the safeguards to ensure asbestos is used safely.
A recent documentary of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. showed that, according to the World Health Organization, asbestos kills an estimated 8,000 people each year in India - a situation described as an "epidemic" in the documentary.
The WHO estimates that globally, more than 100,000 people die from asbestos-related illnesses, including cancer, every year.
Coulombe disputes that figure and said he has asked the WHO several times to explain how they came up with the number.
"The controversy is constantly fuelled by false information," Coulombe said, pointing to reports showing workers in India and other countries handling asbestos with their bare hands.
"We make sure it is used safely everywhere we export it. There might be some small mom-and-pops shops who buy asbestos from China and do a bad job, but that represents less than one-tenth of a percentage of the industry in India," Coulombe said.
Leslie Stayner, an asbestos expert at the University of Illinois school of public health, says he fears that, in the future, there will be an epidemic of cancer and other diseases as a result of exposure to asbestos in developing countries.
"I'm afraid that the end results of Canada and other countries exporting asbestos will be that the developing world will be experiencing an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases some years from now as we are experiencing in Canada and the U.S.," he said.
Stayner was a key member of a federal government expert panel on asbestos who delivered a report that noted the "strong relationship" between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos.
That report was held back by Ottawa for 13 months before it was released in 2011.
Stayner has called for Canada to ban exports of asbestos and stressed the country could show a leadership role in taking a stand against the mineral.
"The science is very clear, and a number of international bodies have reviewed the issue and have all come to the same conclusion that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are hazardous and cause cancers in humans. That's not going to change," he said.
Canada is facing a renewed push to ban exports of asbestos for good now that the country's two remaining asbestos mines, located in Quebec, have stopped producing the controversial mineral for the first time in 130 years.
In November, the Lac d'amiante du Canada operation in Thetford Mines suspended its operations because it was having operational obstacles accessing the mineral. In the town of Asbestos, about two hours east of Montreal, the Jeffrey Mine needs a bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government before it can start digging a new underground mine.
Coulombe said he hopes to resume work next summer if he gets the green light from provincial officials. In the meantime, a small amount continues to be exported, but Coulombe noted that he will be out of stock in five or six months.
Asbestos is a hot-button issue in Quebec and the government is taking its time before deciding whether it will hand out the $58-million loan guarantee.
"We are still analyzing the project and the financial structure," said Quebec Economic Development Minister Sam Hamad.
He noted the government is committed to keep the mine open for economic reasons, but stressed the managers will not get a penny unless they can assure Quebec that asbestos will be used safely where it is exported.
The NDP's Martin called on Quebec to seize the opportunity to let the province's struggling asbestos mines die their natural death.
"Let it go. Stop writing the cheques and they'll be out of business. And then we can hold out head up high again," he said.
"I think we're within striking distance of victory in terms of banning asbestos." ILLUS: DARIO AYALA THE GAZETTE / Activists are "unrelentingly and unfairly" attacking chrysotile asbestos, says Bernard Coulombe, president of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos.; ADEEL HALIM BLOOMBERG NEWS / India ranks as the world's largest importer of asbestos, most of which goes into making corrugated roofing sheets for slum dwellings, like these in Mumbai.;