From Bad to Worse: A Difficult Time for Canada’s Asbestos Stakeholders!
Autumn, 2003 began badly for the Canadian asbestos industry with the holding of the country’s first independent asbestos conference: Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern. The formation of the new group: Ban Asbestos Canada (BAC) at this conference and the launch of its bilingual website1 on November 14 were both unwelcome developments to an industry which had formerly exercised almost total control of the national asbestos agenda.
On October 23, 2003, Robert Semenciw, a technical advisor in the Surveillance and Risk Assessment Division for Health Canada, sent a copy of the report Mesothelioma Study in Lambton County to James Brophy, Director of a health center in Ontario which is seeing more and more victims of asbestos-related disease. The report confirmed the diagnoses of 63 mesothelioma cases between 1986 and 1995; employers of those diagnosed with this fatal asbestos cancer included: Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical, Novacor Chemical, Noa Chemicals, Holmes Insulations Ltd., Holmes Foundry, Chrysler Canada, unnamed construction, insulating and plumbing companies. The report confirms “an elevated standardized incidence ratio (SIR) of 3.95 (p<0.01) for males only, with 21 observed cases versus 5.3 expected for years 1986 to 1993…Case verification has confirmed the presence of a cluster of mesothelioma cases in the county.”
On November 14, an anxiously-awaited report was issued by the Institut national de sante publique du Québec (National Institute of Public Health in Québec) which exploded the asbestos industry’s assertions that Canadian chrysotile was safe.2 The seventy-six page report, Epidemiology of the Diseases Caused by Exposure to Asbestos, states that during the period 1984-1996 the incidence of mesothelioma amongst Québec men was more than four times that of Québec women and women in Québec were twice as likely to contract mesothelioma as Canadian women generally. These levels ranked high amongst worldwide incidence rates for mesothelioma:
“For men, only some parts of the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands had rates significant higher than in Québec. For women no country surpassed Québec.”
Although the rate of mesothelioma mortality for men under 60 remained stable, mortality for older men increased; the worst affected cohort consisted of men born between 1930 and 1939.
As the epidemic of asbestos-related disease has been documented in many Western countries, it is not a great surprise to find that people working for the asbestos industry and with asbestos products in Canada have also contracted asbestos diseases. With its international reputation as a responsible and environmentally-concerned nation, it surprises many people to discover that Canada, the world’s 2nd biggest exporter of chrysotile (white asbestos), has denied the existence of thousands of asbestos victims. One reason for the dearth of research on this topic in Canada was the industry’s influence on Canadian scientists. In a recent issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Dr. David Egilman discussed the studies funded by the Québec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA) and conducted by McGill University researchers. Egilman concluded:
“The Canadian asbestos mining industry has a long history of manipulating scientific data to generate results that support claims that their product is ‘innocuous’. Researchers complicit in this manipulation seem to be motivated by a variety of interests, including a desire to support an important national industry and a pre-existing ideological commitment to support corporate interests over worker or community interests. Conducting industry-friendly research can also anchor an academic career by guaranteeing the steady stream of funding necessary to stay afloat in the ‘publish or perish’ environment of the university.”3
QAMA’s strategies to “mislead the medical community about the carcinogenic effects of asbestos exposure” were best expressed, the author said, by the acronym ABC: “Anything But Chrysotile.” As vindicating chrysotile was the holy grail, the ABC argument blamed organic and synthetic oil contamination, crocidolite and tremolite.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to make Asbestos Institute Directors spit chrysotile pellets, a report issued by The Extractive Industry Review (EIR) in November, 2003 recommended that the International Bank for Reconstruction and the International Development Association of the World Bank Group (WBG):4
Accelerate the phase-out of WBG support for all asbestos-containing products, even indirectly, including mining, manufacturer, commerce and use.
Continue to assist with the safe removal and disposal of asbestos, and adopt a best practice demolition code.
Support asbestos manufacturers in developing countries to switch out of asbestos-containing products, and into less risky products.
Support victims of asbestos exposure, including litigation of victims, or by creating a financial compensation mechanism, akin to the toxic mine waste and toxic lagoon legacy issue taken up by the Extractive Industry Review (eireview.net).
Work with the rest of the UN system to foster a global ban on asbestos.
November 17, 2003
2 Épidémiologie des maladies reliées à l'exposition à l'amiante au Québec.
Institute National de Santé Publique Québec: 2003-11-14
3 Egilman D, Exposing the “Myth” of ABC, “Anything But Chrysotile”: A Critique of the Canadian Asbestos Mining Industry and McGill University Chrysotile Studies. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Wiley-Liss, Inc. 2003;44:540-557.