Asbestos: A Hot-Button Issue in Canada
They say that timing is everything. That being so, then current developments taking place in Canada do not augur well for the country's moribund asbestos industry. Unless a pot of $58 million can be found in the coming weeks, plans to breathe new life into this toxic industry could collapse. If the Quebec Government rejects an appeal to provide a multimillion dollar loan guarantee and potential Chinese investors again walk away from the scheme to develop an underground chrysotile mine in Quebec, the country's production of asbestos could be at an end. And not before time!
The all-important decisions referred to above will be made in a climate of political uncertainty and unfolding scandal. After a Parliamentary no confidence vote succeeded in March 2011, a federal election was called for May 2011. Canada's main opposition party, the Liberals, are on record as supporting an asbestos ban and an end to asbestos mining in Canada. It is believed that the statement made by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff which announced the party's conversion to a ban asbestos policy, was the incentive which persuaded the Chinese businessman to walk away from the mining project in 2009.1 With an election looming and with support for Stephen Harper wavering, potential investors would be remiss if they did not question the political viability of the asbestos project.
In recent days, major Canadian news outlets including the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette, Victoria Times-Colonist, Windsor Star, Calgary Herald, National Post and Vancouver Sun have run exposés on the federal government's attempts to manipulate the national asbestos debate.2 On March 28 a piece appeared in the Ottawa Citizen headlined: Ban the immoral export of asbestos. Highlighting the 2011 electoral theme of political integrity, Journalist Dan Turner suggested that the Liberal Party make a national asbestos ban a high-profile electoral issue saying: Why not promise that if voters throw the Harper Conservatives out, Canada will quit exporting deadly asbestos to developing countries?3 Contrasting Canada's moral duty to prevent attacks on Libyan civilians as delineated by Defence Minister Peter MacKay with the country's export of deadly asbestos to developing countries, Turner concluded: Nobody representing a country that exports asbestos should be talking about Canada's moral duty to people in foreign lands.
On March 29, pressure on politicans was heightened with the publication of articles entitled: Asbestos report 'distorted,' Expert demands fed retract statement on 'safe' use of asbestos and 'Safe use' of asbestos misleading, expert says.4 The text in these pieces references the controversy over the findings of the Health Canada Expert Panel on Chrysotile Asbestos (the panel) which was convened by the federal government in 2007. Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis has recently cited the panel's report in support of the government's safe use asbestos policy. A letter denouncing the Minister's assertion as a total misrepresentation was written by a leading panel member, Dr. Leslie Stayner.5 The U.S. scientist said that the question of whether chrysotile could be used safely was outside the panel's remit:
Had we been asked this question, I would certainly not have supported the argument that the continued production and use of asbestos in any form, including chrysotile, is safe. It is impossible to believe that developing countries such as India will be able to use chrysotile asbestos in a manner that protects public health when more technically advanced countries like Canada and the United States have failed to do so.
Stayner has demanded that Paradis retract his patently false statement.
Expressing agreement with Stayner's views, the President of the panel, Dr. Trevor Ogden, wrote a letter to the Quebec newspaper La Tribune in March 2011 in which he reported:
the panel did not discuss the question of 'safe use (of chrysotile).' Nobody asked us this question. We discussed the evidence about the carcinogenicity of asbestos and we concluded that two principle articles had analyzed all the research on this question using solid scientific methodology. These articles both agreed that chrysotile causes pulmonary cancer and that the risk increases as exposure increases. The panel did not discuss whether the risk is acceptable or not.6
The anger of the two scientists is palpable but either because they are professionals or because they are gentlemen neither one of them has used the word which springs to mind when discussing the comments by Minister Paradis. That word is liar.
March 29, 2011
1 Ruff K. Asbestos Industry Suffers Major Blows in Canada. September 4, 2009.
2 See articles:
3 Turner D. Ban the immoral export of asbestos. March 28, 2011.
4 Schmidt S. Asbestos report 'distorted.' March 29, 2011. http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/Asbestos+report+distorted/4518644/story.html
6 Author's translation of French text written by Dr. Trevor Ogden and sent to La Tribune in March 2011.