Beware the Ides of May! 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Although Julius Caesar was warned to "beware the ides of March," it was the ides of May that proved disastrous for Canadian asbestos stakeholders.1 Developments which unfolded both in Canada and abroad revealed the growing antipathy to the continued export of Canadian asbestos.

On Wednesday May 12, 2010, a high profile press conference was held at 11 a.m. in the Canadian Parliament followed by a well-supported march and rally in the capital. The participation of Tom Mulcair, an MP from asbestos-producing Quebec and a member of the New Democratic Party, in the day's activities was highly significant, not to add very brave.


Criticizing asbestos production in Quebec nowadays is comparable to denigrating the coal mines in Wales a generation ago, both industries being intimately woven into the very fabric of life in their respective heartlands. Mulcair told journalists that Canada's policy of promoting the use of asbestos in the developing world is “scandalous and shameful.”2 The fact that homegrown chrysotile asbestos is scarcely used in Canada is evidence, he said, that industry's reassuring line on controlled use is a lie.3

The march by asbestos victims, trade unionists, academics and politicians which followed the press conference called for a Canadian asbestos ban. The marchers were preceded by banners held by protestors, one of whom was wearing a black tee shirt on which a skull and crossbones was depicted alongside the slogan “Killed by Canadian Asbestos.”


A symbolic procession of coffins highlighted the huge global epidemic caused by exposure to Canadian asbestos and the escalation of risk posed by increasing asbestos use in Asia.4


The open-air rally on Parliament Hill was addressed by key ban asbestos activists including MP Pat Martin and Sean McKenny, President of the Labour District Council, seen speaking in the photograph below.


Sean McKenny speaking, with Pat Martin MP to his right.

Dr. Fernand Turcotte, a professor emeritus of public health at Laval University, was amongst those who traveled to Ottawa to speak out against the asbestos industry. He is well positioned to do so having spent years campaigning against big tobacco, nicknamed “the evil twin” of the asbestos industry. In February 2010, Turcotte told the Canadian Medical Association Journal that Canada's promotion of asbestos “gives us a horrible standing on the international scene, where we seem to be insisting on having the right to continue polluting the planet, just to save a few hundred jobs… As Canadians, we are behaving like a bunch of insensitive gangsters or poison-peddlars on the international scene.”5

There was, as to be expected, considerable media interest in the day's activities and a number of subsequent newspaper articles appeared in the English and French speaking press which exploded assertions by the industry stakeholders that “asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions.” Dr Tushar Joshi, who was in Canada for a series of meetings with social partners in the ban asbestos network, is from the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in New Delhi. He is scathing in his views on the growing use of asbestos in India:

“There is no safe level of exposure (to asbestos), and if developed countries with all their laws and resources cannot use it safely, then how can Canada expect developing countries like India, where health and safety regulations and laws are unenforced, (to) possibly use it safely.” 6

Dr Joshi pointed out the implications of increasing use of asbestos in a country which is expected to see $500 billion spent by the government on construction infrastructure in the next five years. Millions of workers engaged in building work will receive hazardous exposures to asbestos-cement products used for these construction projects. Canadian exports to India account for a substantial proportion of the asbestos being used. In 2008 and 2009 Canadian asbestos exports to India reached 10 year highs at 75,540 tonnes and 79,894 tonnes, respectively.7

The timing of the events in Ottawa was not good for asbestos stakeholders who are nervously awaiting a decision on whether the Quebec Government “will provide crucial loan guarantees for a new underground asbestos mine in the town of Asbestos.” While the expansion of the Jeffrey Mine's capacity could provide a few hundred jobs in Quebec, the export of the asbestos fiber will endanger hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the developing world.

Coincidentally, the day after the events in Ottawa took place, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for urgent action to protect human health from exposure to 10 chemicals, amongst which was asbestos. The WHO said that:

“All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs)… Currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 DALYs.8 In addition, several thousands of deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to nonoccupational exposures to asbestos. Elimination of asbestos-related diseases should take place through the following public health actions: a) recognizing that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos; b) replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement; c) taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement), and; d) improving early diagnosis, treatment, social and medical rehabilitation of asbestos-related diseases and establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos.”9

Two days after the Ottawa events, news was being disseminated of community unrest over environmental contamination caused by asbestos processing operations at an American owned brake linings factory in a Mexico City suburb. Considering the strategic importance of the Mexican asbestos market and the fact that Canada exports asbestos to Mexico, the negative publicity generated by this news was yet one more unwelcome development for asbestophiles. A fortnight earlier, an Asbestos Panel had been part of The XI Intra-American Congress of Prevention of Labor Risks and the Workers' Health Research Congress in Mexico City. During their presentations, asbestos experts from Mexico and the United States detailed the health consequences of hazardous asbestos exposures and called for the use of asbestos to be banned in both countries.

On the penultimate day of this catastrophic week for the asbestos industry, (May 14) a UK asbestos victims' group denounced the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs for his “disingenuous” defense of his Government's asbestos policy. John Flanagan, a spokesperson for Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group, wrote: “Just as a drug pusher is responsible for the fatal overdose of a heroin addict, so the Canadian and Quebec Governments are responsible for thousands of asbestos deaths in the UK and around the world.” Historical data from government files show that the majority of UK asbestos-related deaths now occurring are due to Canadian asbestos (see: Canadian Minister's Asbestos Lie!).

Meanwhile, back in the Quebec asbestos heartland, residents of the town of Asbestos know that the glory days are gone for ever. Plan B, as revealed in an ironic piece in The Irish Times on May 15, 2010, involves rebranding the town. Based on her visit to Asbestos, Journalist Lorraine Mallinder described the “almost childlike earnestness” with which “the town has launched a surreal tourism campaign focused on healthy living and adventure pursuits.”10 This in a place where the landscape is dominated by huge mountains of asbestos-containing debris. Ending her piece with a list of other North American locales that are unlikely to attract many visitors – places such as Dull, Ohio, Boring, Oregon and Purgatory, Maine – she concludes that even though the town is “one of the least appealing holiday destinations on Earth… (it) is trying its damnedest to put on its brightest face for tourists.”

May 18, 2010


1 The ides of a month usually refer to the 15th day of some months and the 13th day of others.

2 Lalonde M. Asbestos: silky, strong – deadly. May 15, 2010.

3 The Transport Department in Quebec only uses asbestos in 2% of its roadwork projects and local towns have ceased using it alltogether because of the associated costs involved with using a carcinogen. To replace a 1.2 kilometer section of road in Quebec City cost $450,000, ten times as much as it would have done had the road not contained asbestos.
Manifestation contre l'amiante. May 12, 2010.

4 Jeffords S. Opposition heard at rally. May 16, 2010.
See also: Nicoud A. Front commun contre l'amiante a Ottawa. May 12, 2010.

5 Eggertson L. Quebec stands firm on asbestos exports despite growing controversy. February 17, 2010.

6 Lalonde M. Chrysotile Institute champions asbestos – by any other name. May 15, 2010.
See also: Mittelstaedt M. Canada pegged to lead world away from asbestos. May 11, 2010.

7 Canadian Export Statistics, Commodity 2524, Asbestos. As supplied to Pat Martin MP.

8 DALYs are “the sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality and the years of productive life lost due to disability."


10 Mallinder L. Don't hold your breath for Asbestos to catch on. May 15, 2010.



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