Canadians Support Global Asbestos Regulations 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Throughout the Summer, opposition to the Canadian government's entrenched support for chrysotile asbestos has been growing. There has been a dizzying array of recent activities and developments which has mobilized ban asbestos support throughout several Canadian provinces. In the aftermath of the August 10, 2008 explosion at the Sunrise propane plant in northwest Toronto, concern about the likelihood of asbestos contamination led to the evacuation of 12,000 residents in the Downsview area.1 One hundred homes were eventually “declared off-limits to their owners,” as decontamination work began on buildings, streets and public areas. Pollution was found in the home of David and Linda Eastwood, 1 kilometer from the site of the fatal explosion; by the end of August they were still living in alternative accommodation.2

Speaking to The Canadian Press, Dr. James Brophy, former Director of Sarnia's Occupational Health and Safety Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), pointed out that the asbestos contamination in Downsview was not unique; hundreds of thousands of Canadian homes and public buildings contain Zonolite insulation, an asbestos-contaminated product. Raven Thundersky lived in a Zonolite-insulated government house on a first nation reservation in Poplar River, Winnipeg; her parents and three sisters died from asbestos-related diseases.3 In September 2008, a proposed settlement offering compensation estimated at $600 to eligible Canadians was announced. Ms. Thundersky was appalled:

“This is just adding insult to injury… $600? I don't know if you can get anyone to do an assessment of your home for $600.”

Winnipeg MP Pat Martin, an outspoken critic of Canada's asbestos policy and a sufferer of pleural plaques, an asbestos-related condition, is unimpressed; he called $600 “an absolutely paltry amount of money. It's almost useless in terms of the scale of the remediation work that needs to be done out here.”4

Victims: Don't Know, Don't Care

There is no shortage of asbestos victims in Canada. Hundreds of cases of asbestos-related diseases are registered by the OHCOW Clinic in Sarnia, Ontario every year. There is little official help for the injured according to Dr. Brophy: “we're probably the only industrialized country not tracking the extent of the disease (epidemic) and its impact on our society.” There are no government resources to assist victims or raise awareness of the asbestos hazard. MP Pat Martin believes that the lack of government action is not an oversight:

“Certainly the Government will not support anything that may be viewed as critical of asbestos when they're the chief cheerleaders for the asbestos industry.”

As the after-effects of the Toronto explosion fed through the Canadian media, an editorial in the Toronto Star asked:

“If asbestos is such a threat to human health, why is Canada one of the last developed countries to mine and export it? ... The Downsview blast [was] a stark reminder of what happens when things go wrong.”

In the absence of manmade or natural disasters, exposure to asbestos is still hazardous to human health; why else is it “currently being removed from the Parliament buildings as part of a costly renovation (estimated at $1 billion),” the editor asked? 5

Canadian Asbestos Psychosis

Canadians have been in denial about the consequences of using asbestos, nicknamed “white gold,” for decades. A kind of asbestos machismo persists as witnessed by public disregard over the discovery of widespread contamination of Calgary's roadways earlier this Summer. A municipal report documented the presence of asbestos in the majority of samples collected in March 2008 from 34 city roads, including some main routes. While officials claimed there was no public danger, ban asbestos campaigner Kyla Sentes was shocked by the low priority given to protecting the community. She told journalists:

“There's no safe asbestos and there's no levels of asbestos which are safe… There's people who have been exposed to a tiny amount (of asbestos) and have developed illness.” 6

Sentes, an Alberta resident whose father died of asbestosis, was alarmed about the level of risk experienced by the crews working on the asbestos-tainted roadways without protective gear: “People should look like spacemen when they're out there – there's zero excuse for that.”

Canadian Veto of United Nations Asbestos Regulations

Canada, with a few other asbestos diehards, has blocked several attempts by the UN to implement right-to-know regulations on the global trade in chrysotile asbestos.7 On July 28, 2008, the Coordinator of Ban Asbestos Canada (BAC), “a coalition of environmental, labor and human rights groups,”8 asked the Ottawa government to declare its current position on the inclusion of chrysotile on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention in light of the Rome Conference of the Parties on October 27-31, 2008. Dr. Kapil Khatter, President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, believes that Canada's behavior: “is putting the integrity of the Rotterdam Convention in jeopardy…”9 Kathleen Ruff, human rights activist and coordinator of the new “Rotterdam Convention Alliance” (ROCA), agrees:

“Canada's obstruction has made the Convention unworkable. It has forced U.N. officials to circulate proposals to rewrite the Convention with a complex system of dual standards and exemptions which would be a disaster. It would gut the Convention and put commercial interests ahead of human health. This is not what Canadians want.”

In an opinion piece she published in The Star newspaper, Ms. Ruff concluded: “It's time for Canada to stop acting like a rogue state and instead allow chrysotile asbestos to be listed under the Rotterdam Convention.”10 Researcher Fe de Leon from the Environmental Law Association also called for Ottawa “to stop blocking the Convention and allow chrysotile asbestos to be listed” as did Elizabeth May, leader of Canada's Green Party:

“The Green Party is calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing by allowing chrysotile asbestos to be listed, ending its export and developing a just transition strategy for affected workers in Canada.11

Marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Rotterdam Convention, (September 10) a letter headlined: World Call of Conscience to Prime Minister Harper to Stop Obstructing the Rotterdam Convention was released:

“With deep dismay we note the destructive role that Canada has played in vetoing the recommendations of the Convention's expert scientific body to put chrysotile asbestos on the list of hazardous chemicals, even thought chrysotile asbestos meets every scientific and legal requirement of the Convention and has been banned by over forty countries… We call on you to uphold Canada's legal and moral commitment to the global right to be informed about hazardous chemicals and pesticides.”12

The letter was signed by more than 125 of the world's leading medical, scientific, and academic authorities including Dr. Jim Simon, National President of the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr. Richard Lemen, Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. (ret'd), Dr. Peter Infante, Director of Standards Development OSHA U.S. (ret'd), Dr. Morando Soffritti, General Secretary of the Collegium Ramazzini, Italy and Dr. Leslie Stayner, Professor and Director, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, UIC School of Public Health, Chicago, U.S.

It is of relevance to note the inclusion of Dr. Stayner on the list of signatories; Dr. Stayner who was one of the scientists designated by Health Canada in Autumn 2007 to produce a report on chrysotile. Following discussions held in Canada by the expert panel in November 2007, the report was finalized in March 2008. 13 Although the members of the panel had expected the report to be released shortly thereafter, at the time of writing (September 23) it remains hidden away. No explanation has been given for the delay. Resorting to “civil servant-speak,” an unnamed spokesperson for Health Canada wrote in an email that “the department is reviewing the report to 'help further its knowledge of chrysotile asbestos fibres in relation to human health… (and the report) will be made available to the public after the department has reviewed the findings.”14 Dr. Stayner and Dr. Trevor Ogden, the panel's chairman, have both complained to Minister Tony Clement about the unacceptable delay in publication. 15 None of the experts is in a position to disclose the text of the report having signed contracts giving the right of ownership to the Canadian government. When the news broke in early September that a federal election would be held on October 14, 2008, it became inevitable that the mystery report would remain securely out of public reach. No doubt when the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention meet, Canada's new government will behave very much like its old one.

September 24, 2008


1 Curb Canada's Asbestos Trade. Toronto Star. August 17, 2008

2 Lavoie J. Downsview Couple Slowly Rebuilding their Lives Following Propane Blast. August 29, 2008

3 Schneider A. Lawyers take Millions while Asbestos Victims get $8.12. September 10, 2008

4 Wiebe L. Asbestos-tainted Insulation Offer “Paltry”: Critics. Winnipeg Free Press. September 11, 2008.

5 Lawrence D. Asbestos Scare Shines Light on lack of Government Funding for Victims. The Canadian Press. August 14, 2008

6 White T. Asbestos Use Floors Activist. July 20, 2008 Sun Media.

7 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention: Fighting for its Life. March 19, 2008.

8 Pat Moss, Coordinator of BAC, letter to John Baird, Minister of the Environment. July 28, 2008.

9 Rotterdam Convention Alliance. Media Release. Canada Obstructing U.N. Convention Over Asbestos. August 13, 2008.

10 Ruff K. Canada Plays Spoiler on Asbestos. August 12, 2008. The Star.

11 Media Release. Hands off Rotterdam Convention, Greens Tell Harper. August 21, 2008

12 World Call of Conscience to Prime Minister Harper to Stop Obstructing the Rotterdam Convention. September 10, 2008.

13 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Uproar in Canada. May 28, 2008

14 Lawrence D. Critics say Federal Delay in Releasing Unflattering Asbestos Report 'Cowardly.'
The Canadian Press. August 7, 2008

15 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Uproar in Canada. May 28, 2008



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