Pressure Builds in Canada to Outlaw Asbestos
Long-standing efforts by civil society groups, international agencies and trade unions are culminating in a series of decisions and events which reveal the contempt in which asbestos and asbestos sellers are now held. It is no exaggeration to say that the underhanded tactics marshaled by asbestos stakeholding governments and commercial interests to market this discredited substance have tarnished the reputation of a country once held in high esteem for its human rights and environmental agendas: Canada. Over recent weeks, Canada has been criticized by the International Labor Organization, indicted by leading scientists, pilloried by journalists and ridiculed by Canadian comedians.
On June 10 (Friday), Canada's pro-asbestos policy was challenged by no less a body than the International Labor Organization (ILO). 1 A special hearing was convened to hear testimony regarding Canada's failure to fulfill its obligations as a signatory to ILO's Asbestos Convention (162); under Article 3, signatory countries are required to enact a regulatory regime for the prevention and control of, and protection of workers against, health hazards due to occupational exposure to asbestos.2 According to testimony given in Geneva by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Canada has:
failed to review national laws and regulations governing occupational exposure to asbestos, and to take into account advances in technology and scientific knowledge, as is called for in Article 3 of Convention 162 Instead of acting accordingly, Canada continues to use unreliable data based on improper methodologies
The ILO Committee on the Application of Standards has notified the Canadian government that the strictest standard limits for the protection of workers' health as regards exposure to asbestos are mandatory and that a wide-ranging review of national regulations which includes input from labor and employer organizations is overdue.
The same day as the Geneva hearing took place, a paper was being circulated from the peer-reviewed journal Respirology, the official journal of the Asian Pacific Society of Respirology, entitled: Asbestos use and asbestos-related diseases in Asia: past, present and future, which was categorical as to the dire effects of the aggressive promotion of asbestos by vested interests. The Asian increase of asbestos consumption over recent years will, the scientists concluded, likely trigger a surge of ARDs in the coming decades. 3 The findings in this paper have been commented on under such headlines as: Death and Major Morbidity from Asbestos-Related Diseases in Asia Likely to Surge in Next 20 years, Experts Warn,4 Asia Accounts For Two-Thirds Of Asbestos Use Worldwide5 and Asbestos deaths expected to spike in Asia.6
In London on June 7, the All Party Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group heard Brazilian Attorney Mauro de Menezes detail illicit operations of asbestos vested interests in Brazil and the campaign by the national asbestos victims' group (ABREA) to highlight the illegal acts of asbestos representatives including the corruption of trade union organizations and the use of false advertising. At the same time, a high-level meeting on asbestos took place in Bonn, Germany convened by the World Health Organization to examine the European fallout of continuing asbestos exploitation with a particular focus on the mining and processing of asbestos in East European countries. On June 30, 2011, a meeting at the European Parliament will continue this discussion when delegates in Brussels attend the seminar entitled: Asbestos Still a Killer. Amongst the subjects on the agenda will be a presentation examining Canada's role in the international asbestos lobby.
Back home in Canada, things are spinning out of control with numerous articles and television reports highlighting the duplicity of the government's asbestos policy. On June 13, a piece headlined Health Canada's asbestos advice rejected by government cited government documents which revealed Ottawa's rejection in 2006 of expert advice that chrysotile asbestos be scheduled under the Rotterdam Convention, a United Nations protocol that aims to minimize fallout from the global trade in toxic chemicals and pesticides: 7
According to documents obtained under Access to Information, a senior Health Canada bureaucrat wrote that the agency believed that chrysotile a form of asbestos that has been linked to cancer should be added to a UN treaty known as the Rotterdam Convention
[Health Canada's] preferred position would be to list as this is consistent with controlled use i.e. let people know about the substance so they have the infromation they need, through prior informed consent, to ensure they handle and use the substance correctly.
Also on June 13, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showed a piece about the controversial asbestos policies pursued by the Governments of Ottawa and Quebec on national TV news; this feature disclosed internal documents exposing the prioritization of political and commercial objectives over health concerns regarding asbestos. The fact that the Quebec asbestos industry generates $90 million in asbestos sales explained, so the reporter said, why Canada has been the only developed country to block the listing of chrysotile on the Rotterdam Convention.8 In the run-up to the 5th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, today (June 14), a high-profile press conference is being held by opposition MPs and leading experts under the banner Asbestos must be declared toxic. Politicans Romeo Saganash, Nathan Cullen and Pat Martin from the New Democratic Party will join medical experts and trade unionists participating in the Ottawa event. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has publicly declared his intention in 2011 to, yet again, block moves to add chrysotile to Annex III of the UN Convention. Although the inclusion of a substance or pesticide on the prior informed consent list is not a ban, exporting countries of listed goods are required to inform importers of known hazards so that they might decide whether or not they have the capacity to use the substance safely.
To cap the continuing run of bad publicity for the asbestos industry, a series of three clips has been produced by a group of Canadian comedians which targets the self-serving amorality underlying the pro-asbestos policy espoused by Ottawa and Quebec. Sean Devlin, one of the actors involved, told journalists: Mr. Harper's stance on asbestos is morally bankrupt. Hypocrisy this blatant would be hilarious if it weren't also deadly.9 The first two segments are packaged as clips from a TV do-it-yourself show presented by Chris O'Tile (chrysotile). Suggestions made to Prime Minister Harper and other Canadian chrysophiles include covering your windows with asbestos to prevent heat loss, a green and environmentally friendly thing to do, and insulating your hot tub with asbestos fleece to maintain the temperature. The third clip: Asbestos Safety, 101 has a presenter from the Philippines showing his countrymen how to use a bandana to prevent inhalation of asbestos, under the slogan of safety first. To the side of the uploads, is a petition which states: On June 20th, the United Nations will vote to place an international ban on asbestos. Prime Minister Harper stands as an obstacle to this global agreement. The petition calls on Harper to:
Institute a just transition program for the 500 remaining asbestos workers and the communities they live in [and] join the United Nations in banning the production and exporting of asbestos worldwide. If he doesn't, he should put it back in his own home.
In the light of the escalation of criticism which the asbestos industry is attracting in Canada and elsewhere, it is time for immediate action. Canadian politicans can no longer continue acting as pimps and hustlers for an industry which is increasingly bringing not only its stakeholders but also the country's institutions and reputation into disrepute. Canada's dumping of asbestos on developing countries has made it a pariah state. There can be no doubt that this status will adversely affect the country's ability to negotiate trade deals, promote tourism and project a positive self-image.
In just over two weeks, Canada will mark its 144th birthday with Canada Day celebrations at home and abroad. The activities planned for that day barbecues, fireworks, ice hockey games, Inuit throat singing performances, great plains dance displays and other home-grown entertainments are meant to reflect the achievements of those who have made Canada what it is today. Contributing to Canada's prosperity has been the export of chrysotile asbestos. At the same time as the toxic industry was poisoning human beings in Canada and abroad, corporate and government stakeholders were enjoying boom times. With the spotlight on the upcoming Rotterdam Convention meeting, it is time for Canada to, once and for all, bring an end to this trade. Within the coming weeks, Canada should announce plans to close down its asbestos industry and support the inclusion of chrysotile on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. Canadian officials should thereafter assist international agencies and national groups to implement plans to protect human beings and the environment from the deadly Canadian asbestos indiscriminately shipped around the world over the last 100+ years.
June 14, 2011
From June 20-24, 2011, the 5th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention will meet in Geneva; once again, the subject of listing chrysotile will be discussed.