Yukon News

Building Canadian industry on the bodies of the poor

EditorialRichard Mostyn Friday June 24, 2011

Canadian politicians can defend the deadly asbestos industry all they want, but they shouldn’t mislead citizens to do it.

In the leadup to talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on hazardous substances, a grassroots letter-writing campaign was staged to end Canada’s asbestos exports.

But in six ridings, supporters of CanadaCausesCancer.ca received eerily similar letters from six different Conservative politicians that wrongly claimed all scientific reviews supported Canada’s asbestos policy.

In fact, much of the world thinks otherwise.

Julio Peto, head of epidemiology at the University of London, says there’s no safe way to use asbestos in developing nations - because there is little money for protective clothing or ventilation systems.

And in 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”

The agency also said, “More than 40 countries, including all members of the European Union, have banned the use of all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile.”

Asbestos has been cited as the cause of cancer in 500,000 Western Europeans alone.

The material, mined in Quebec, is a $90-million industry. It is used as a binder in cement, in insulation and as a fire-retardant in walls.

Canada exported 430,000 tonnes of the stuff, most of it to the developing world, like India, where most workers handle the raw fibres with no form of protection.

It should be noted Ottawa is spending tens of millions of dollars stripping asbestos from various public buildings, including the Parliament Buildings. And also from the Prime Minister’s residence.

In their letters to the concerned constituents, the six Conservative MPs asserted, “The government has promoted the safe and controlled use of chrysotile, both domestically and internationally.”

Again, that isn’t really true.

In fact, Health Canada officials recommended asbestos should be added to the Rotterdam Convention, the global list of hazardous materials currently under review in Geneva.

Ottawa has rejected that advice.

Instead, this week it became the lone holdout among nations pushing for chrysotile asbestos to be added to that list of hazardous chemicals.

Canada was widely expected to let other asbestos-producing nations, like Vietnam and Kyrgyszstan, play the bad guys.

But they didn’t step up.

And then India, a big importer, abruptly changed tack and agreed the substance should be added to the list of banned substances.

That prompted most other nations to drop their opposition to the listing.

And what would that listing do? It would force exporters, like Canada, to warn recipient countries of any potential health hazards. It would also allow importers to refuse the material if they didn’t feel they could handle it safely.

Today, more than 100 nations support listing asbestos as a toxic substance.

Faced with that rout, Canada stepped into the breach and blocked the move. A few hours later, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, two other producers, dropped their support of the listing and joined Canada.

And that’s where it stands as of press time.

The UN’s Rotterdam Convention has, once more, been blocked by Canada’s intransigence.

“It looks to be a long night ahead,” Michael Stanley-Jones, of the UN Environmental Program, told the Globe and Mail.

Remember, this UN listing would simply force exporters to warn recipients about the dangers of the material. And it would empower the importer to reject the asbestos if it felt it couldn’t safely handle it.

Canada opposed this in 2006. And it’s doing so again, right now.

At home, the Harper government is telling constituents it is promoting safe use, and that its policy is supported by science.

Clearly, given the events playing out at the UN summit on the Rotterdam Convention, that isn’t the case.

If, to defend a Quebec industry, the Harper government wants to continue to send cancer-causing material to shoddy Third World factories, it should simply say that.

It shouldn’t try to gull Canadians about its morally bankrupt decision by playing fast and loose with the facts.

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