Two Steps Forward, Five Steps Back
Even as civil society mobilizes to expose Canada's role in the global asbestos scandal, industry is increasing its pressure on international agencies to roll-back progressive positions adopted last year. On July 11, 2007, the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), a non-profit agency dedicated to the eradication of cancer, created something of a media storm when it called on the Ottawa Government to adopt a comprehensive strategy which phased-out the use and export of asbestos.1 The CCS Media Release noted several glaring omissions in Canadian policy including: low public and occupational awareness of the asbestos hazard, the lack of a surveillance system to track asbestos-related diseases, no mandatory asbestos audits for public buildings and no funding for research into safer non-asbestos alternatives. The Society called on the Conservative Government to stop blocking international efforts to include chrysotile asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent list of the Rotterdam Convention when the issue is discussed in 2008.2 Asbestos victim and MP Pat Martin told journalists that he was delighted with the new CCS position as did Kyla Sentes, spokeswoman for Ban Asbestos Canada.
The CCS statement was reported in the Canadian Press, the National Post, the London Free Press, the Edmonton Sun, the Regina Leader-Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail and on several TV channels including CTV and CNW Telbec; it was also circulated in India and South Africa. Canada's asbestos death toll was referenced by several journalists who recalled that in 2005, 30% of 1,097 workplace deaths were attributed to asbestos. The calls by the CCS echo those made by asbestos victims' groups, trade unions, environmentalists and occupational health campaigners in Canada. Health Canada and industry spokesmen such as Dr Jacques Dunnigan were quick to deny that a phase-out was necessary, citing industry's oft-repeated refrain that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions. While the Health Minister declined to take journalists' calls, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, a strong supporter of Canada's chrysotile industry, defended the status quo saying that chrysotile is safe when properly used.
Just days after the CCS bombshell, another high-profile article appeared in the Globe and Mail which picked up on a recently published academic paper: Canada's Asbestos Legacy at Home and Abroad.3 This paper revealed that between 1980 and 2002 only 30% of mesothelioma sufferers received compensation from Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). At the same time as victims were being short-changed, taxpayers were covering medical bills which should have been paid by the WSIB:
In Ontario, the WSIB is legally obliged to reimburse the provincial healthcare system for costs related to compensable diseases Therefore the failure to recognize the work-relatedness of many mesothelioma cases has resulted in an economic loss to the provincial Ministry of Health.
Compounding the bad press being garnered by the asbestos industry on July 18, the Leader-Post (Regina)4 printed a letter from the Ban Asbestos Saskatchewan Committee which noted that:
Asbestos is now known as the most deadly substance in the history of the Factory Acts and occupational health public policy There is no provincial or federal government monitoring of products containing asbestos entering Saskatchewan or Canada.5
The author of the letter Bob Sass, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Saskatchewan and the former Director of Saskatchewan's Occupational Health and Safety Division, is widely respected in for his long-standing efforts to improve occupational conditions in Canada. His call for public mobilization on the asbestos issue will not go unnoticed.
The asbestos issue has got the Ottawa Government into some very strange alliances. Overseas asbestos producers inflate the sale price for raw asbestos fiber on the world market to allow Canadian producers to compete. This weird commercial behaviour is motivated by the need to retain the respectability which Canada's participation gives to the trade in this toxic substance. The existence of this price-fixing was reported in 2006; Journalist Martin Mittelstaedt commented on a federal briefing document as follows:
federal officials believe there is a type of informal quid pro quo operating in the industry, with Canada using its good image to promote asbestos, in return for foreign companies treating Canadian miners with kid gloves in the battle for market share. 'Foreign producers tolerate higher-cost Canadian producers because of Canada's leadership and credibility in promoting the safe use of chrysotile,' the document says
If Canada flagged in its efforts to back asbestos, federal officials believe foreign companies would stop propping up the Canadian industry, using price competition to drive domestic miners out of business.6
Who are Canada's asbestos bed-fellows? Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, India, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico, all of whom sent representatives to the April 2007 inaugural meeting of the Chrysotile International Alliance of Trade Unions, a new industry pressure group.7 Delegates to this two day propaganda event issued an Appeal to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, which accused the WHO of hastily adopting the 2006 policy on elimination of asbestos-related diseases and demanded that this policy be reconsidered. Without warning or consultation with asbestos victims, NGOs, health and safety campaigners, environmentalists or academics, the WHO did as it was told. At the annual meeting (May 2007) of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO's decision-making body, the intensive industry lobbying was rewarded by a change in the WHO's position which all of a sudden included a let-out clause for chrysotile asbestos. Point 10 of the Annex to the WHA document: Workers' Health: Global Plan of Action stated:
"Its (WHO's) activities will include global campaigns for elimination of asbestos-related diseases - bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms - in line with relevant international legal instruments and the latest evidence for effective interventions....8
This language in is marked contrast to that of the WHO's October 2006 policy statement on the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases which did not differentiate between the types of asbestos fiber:
Bearing in mind there is no evidence for a threshold for the carcinogenic effect of asbestos and that increased cancer risks have been observed in populations exposed to very low levels, the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.9
This skullduggery remained unknown to many non-WHA participants until July 2007; the discovery of the WHO's cave-in was greeted by disbelief by health and safety activists from Asia, North America and Europe who were dismayed at the propaganda value of these developments for global chrysotile pushers. No sooner was the ink dry on the WHA document, than the Chrysotile Institute, the mouthpiece for Canada's absestos lobby, began bragging. Its June 2007 newsletter is almost exclusively dedicated to how the industry has beaten into submission the international agency tasked with protecting global health.10 Items featured in this 12 page diatribe include: the WHO must face the facts, the WHO must not stray in the wrong direction, letters to the WHO, news from the WHA. Of the revised WHA text it said:
the WHA was right to endorse the amended Plan of Action which outlines a commitment that ICA has always supported 'the protection and health of workers.' But, a total ban of all asbestos fibers, including chrysotile, was not endorsed because a ban is not, by a long shot, the only way to protect workers' health.
Attempts to obtain clarification from the WHO about the appalling threat to global health which this about-face represents were frustrated by the holiday absence of key members of staff.
July 27, 2007
1 Canadian Cancer Society Media Release July 11, 2007.
2 Mittelstaedt M. Cancer Society Calls on Ottawa to Change Tack and Ban Asbestos. July 12, 2007.
5 The Ban Asbestos Saskatchewan Committee (BAS) was formed in November 2006 by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour; the BAS aims to launch a fight back campaign against the Chrysotile Institute, formerly the Asbestos Institute of Canada, and the Harper government's support of the asbestos industry's propaganda that white asbestos mined in Québec can be handled safely.
6 Mittelstaedt M. Document Contradicts Ottawa on Asbestos. November 28, 2006.
8 Workers' Health: Global Plan of Action
10 Chrysotile Institute Newsletter. Volume 6. Number 2, June 2007. http://www.chrysotile.com/data/newsletter/vol_6_2_anglais_VF.pdf