The asbestos lobby: exporting a lurking death

According to the Globe and Mail, asbestos is now killing more Canadians than ever before. Mesothelioma, "an aggressive cancer linked to asbestos" is on the increase in Canada, and we can expect this trend to continue for some years to come.

According to the Globe and Mail, asbestos is now killing more Canadians than ever before. Mesothelioma, “an aggressive cancer linked to asbestos” is on the increase in Canada, and we can expect this trend to continue for some years to come.

Last year, 461 new cases of mesothelioma were reported across the country, up from 276 in 1994. The disease is a swift killer – most people die within a year of being diagnosed – but it lurks a long time before striking, surfacing as much as 30 years after contact with asbestos fibres.

Asbestos, the miracle fireproof insulation of the 1950s, fell into disrepute in the 1980s when it was linked to asbestosis, lung cancer, and other forms of cancer. It has since been banned in 40 countries, including Australia, Chile, Saudi Arabia, and the EU. A partial ban exists in the United States. The Canadian government, conversely, is a strong advocate for the asbestos trade.

Canada, Quebec to be more specific, is the world’s second-largest producer of asbestos, after Russia. By no coincidence, Quebec has Canada’s highest rate of asbestos-related disease. But it is not Canadians who will suffer most from the future effects of asbestos production today: more than 90 per cent of our production is sold to developing nations.

In 1999, the Liberal government of Canada challenged France’s ban on asbestos imports at the World Trade Organization. The WTO panel ruled that France had a right to ban asbestos because it is dangerous in any quantity and no matter how it’s handled, and is easily replaced by safer products.

In 2004, Canada and Russia successfully blocked an attempt by NGOs to add chrysotile asbestos to the PIC list, a registry of toxic substances that can’t be exported to developing nations without their prior informed consent. The asbestos lobby claims, on no credible evidence, that chrysotile doesn’t belong on the list because it’s a uniquely safe form of asbestos.

This August, the Canadian Medical Association called for a complete ban on the use and export of asbestos, utterly rejecting the notion that chrysalite is any safer. Why is Canada holding out? To protect jobs? There are 350 asbestos miners in Canada today. Their jobs threaten their health. It would cost far less to put them all on pensions than to pursue an expensive international lobby on behalf of a toxic industry.

Kathleen Ruff, senior adviser on human rights to the Rideau Institute, reports that Chinese investors recently pulled out of a deal that would have extended the life of Canada’s asbestos industry for another 50 years. Ruff asserts the deal fell through when Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff – to his credit – broke with decades of Liberal policy by making a public call for a total ban.

Ruff believes the Chinese pullout means the death of asbestos mining in Canada. If she’s right, it will mean the end of a nefarious business, one that poisons Canadian workers in order to export the same poisons to developing nations, backed by a lobby that prevents national governments even from knowing what’s going on. It may indeed be the first useful thing Ignatieff has done since entering politics.

But if politics killed the Chinese deal, politics can bring it back again. Iggy might waffle as he’s waffled so often before, or the Conservatives might call an election soon and capitalize on Liberal weakness to gain a majority, which may expel the investors’ fears.

Only a total ban on asbestos production and sales can ensure that Canada doesn’t continue to market death to unsuspecting foreign nations. A succession of Liberal and Conservative governments have resisted such a ban for decades. It’s time Canadians raised the pressure on them to end this evil trade.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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