Canada How Could You?
At the heart of one of the world's most esteemed democracies lies a big fat dirty secret. Canada, viewed as a land of enlightenment for its high profile peacekeeping efforts and its pioneering of the global ban on landmines, is endangering the lives of millions of the world's most vulnerable people through its support for the global trade in chrysotile asbestos. Fat cat businessmen, greedy lobbyists and servile civil servants have tarnished the country's reputation and corrupted the very soul of the Canadian federation as they bring pressure to bear on foreign governments to swallow industry's safe use propaganda, forestall the introduction of warning labels and attack ban asbestos activists.
The industry corrupts everything it touches. It has polluted the environment around the Canadian mines to such an extent that the incidence level of asbestos cancer in mining regions is amongst the highest in the world. It has discredited the scientific process by commissioning hired gun scientists to undertake research which can be used to show that their product is safe. Although the findings of these researchers have been dismissed by independent experts, industry lobbyists working hand-in-glove with the Canadian government, continue their relentless promotion of the new science.1 And when the United Nations decided to introduce a protocol calling for informed consent by asbestos importing nations, Canada and a handful of asbestos bullies blocked the way; that this obstructive behaviour will continue at the upcoming meeting of the Rotterdam Convention is almost certain.
One well-honed tactic of the industry lobby is to intimidate its critics through verbal, physical or legal assaults. In February 2008, I witnessed one such incident in the lobby of the Hotel Palais Strudhof, Vienna when a member of (Brazil's) Chrysotile Federation, proceeded to spit insults at Fernanda Giannasi, a Brazilian Factory Inspector and leader of the Latin American Ban Asbestos Movement. Although, the presence of so many of Ms. Giannasi's international colleagues prevented her from coming to any harm on that occasion, the aggressor's tone of voice and body language made his intent quite clear. It did not take a linguist to know that the words which were being shouted were not of a complimentary nature; in fact, the insults hurled at Ms. Giannasi were the Portuguese words for prostitute and bitch. Unfortunately, both the attacker and other members of the Brazilian asbestos mob,2 who had been invited to Vienna by the Russian chrysotile lobby,3 were on the same plane back to Brazil as Ms. Giannasi and continued their abusive and intimidating behaviour throughout the long flight home.
Surely nice Canadians would not behave in such a manner? Well, maybe they don't know the Portuguese slurs their Brazilian brethren used but they have also targeted Ms. Giannasi. On April 23, 2001, Denis Hamel, Director of the Asbestos Institute (since renamed the Chrysotile Institute; CI) denounced Engineer Fernanda Giannasi to the Brazilian Minister of Labor. Hamel wrote to Francisco Dornelles:
It has come to our attention that one of your inspectors, Mrs. Fernanda Giannasi, who is Coordinator of the Citizens' Virtual Network for an Asbestos Ban in Latin America, is using her position in your ministry to promote her views, which are contrary to the stated policy of your country We wonder if this person is officially mandated by your Ministry as a spokesperson on asbestos related matters, taking a position contrary to the official Brazilian policy we respectfully request that your ministry take the necessary measures so that Mrs. Giannasi no longer abuses her professional responsibilities to promote her personal activities.4
Fortunately, the existence of this letter was leaked and a huge international out-pouring of support for Ms. Giannasi resulted; the Asbestos Institute (AI) did not succeed in its attempt to marginalize this much respected public servant.
It seems the AI/CI is very fond of letter writing. In January 2001, AI Director Clement Godbout, reacting to proposals by the Government of Chile to ban asbestos, sent a letter to Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's International Trade Minister, in which he launched a general attack against the Chilean government and a personal attack on Chilean Health Minister Michelle Bachelet. The letter accuses Chile of having a 'cavalier' attitude toward Canadian officials and urges Pettigrew not to tolerate it. It is highly ironic to note that while Michelle Bachelet was a Minister in 2001, she is now President of Chile.5
The AI's failures to oust Giannasi and reverse the asbestos ban in Chile did not deter its successor organization from attempting to interfere with asbestos debates at home and abroad. In 2005, the CI complained to the Canadian television ombudsman about a broadcast report on asbestos. The complaint was rejected, with the ombudsman finding that the facts mentioned in the report were not disputed.6 In 2007, the CI, through its European lawyer Pascal Devaud, wrote to the French Asbestos Victims Group (ANDEVA), threatening legal action over statements on the ANDEVA website which constituted, so the CI alleged: public criminal libel of a private individual. ANDEVA refused to comply with the CI's demands, categorizing this legal action as an attempt at intimidation.7 As a result ANDEVA's President Francois Desriaux and Marc Hindry, the author of the offending article, are soon to be prosecuted for defamation in a criminal court in Paris; they could receive prison sentences. CI President Clement Godbout told a Canadian journalist that he is not trying to intimidate the ban asbestos activists: They have a right to disagree with our positions. But they do not have the right to use defamatory words.
Whilst the website of the CI's Geneva-based lawyers, Budin & Partners, shies away from mentioning anything as grubby as hourly rates, there is little doubt that the services of Lawyer Pascal Devaud, a specialist in commercial arbitration, litigation, corporate law, financial criminal law and international mutual legal assistance, will not come cheap. Still, money is not something the CI needs to worry about. In the next three years it will receive a total of $1.35 million from the Quebec and Federal Governments.8 And this at a time when there is only one working chrysotile mine left in the country!
Corruption of Science
Corporate pushers of toxic products like tobacco and asbestos pioneered the commercialization of science by commissioning research from favored scientists whose results are used to counter criticism and confuse governments and consumers. Statements included in promotional material distributed by the Chrysotile Institute in 2006 included the following:
Scientifically, everything has changed for chrysotile The last few years have brought major scientific advances. Regarding biopersistence of fibres, new data (2003) have confirmed identifiable epidemiological differences between chrysotile and amphiboles. Studies published on American, Brazilian and Canadian chrysotile have strengthened and confirmed the results by McDonald and McDonald (1997 study) asserting that amphiboles remain in the lungs while chrysotile is quickly eliminated. Additionally, a complete case review on the subject of asbestos presence in the brakes and friction materials industry (2004) reveals that it is workers exposed to amphiboles who have developed asbestos-related diseases and not workers exposed to pure chrysotile.9
Independent experts like Drs. David Egilman, Barry Castleman, Richard Lemen and Henri Pezerat are scathing about this new data and the scientists such as David Bernstein who generate it. According to Dr. Egilman:
Studies have shown that chrysotile is biopersistent at the cancer sites and that the cancer-causing process begins within hours or days of exposure. The fact that the research by Bernstein et al. avoids testing at the sites where asbestos-related cancer occurs is an intentional sleight-of-hand designed to produce the result wanted by their industry paymasters which is a clean bill of health for chrysotile.
In a paper entitled: Supporters of chrysotile are using biased studies released by Henri Pezerat in June 2008, the esteemed French toxicologist concluded:
the results on chrysotile put forward in Bernstein et al. lack scientific rigor and credibility. And they in no way justify concluding, as the authors do, that chrysotile in vivo does not behave as a fiber but rather as a particle, or that exposure to chrysotile can only cause cancer if the lungs are overloaded (i.e. in the case of extremely high or prolonged exposure
While Bernstein's results in no way constitute scientific progress quite the contrary they are clearly being used by the international asbestos producers' lobby to suggest that chrysotile is harmless.
Exposing the Asbestos Lobby's Latest Ruse
Having used arguments about the lack of clarity on asbestos science in 2004 and 2006 to block action on chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention, industry stakeholders have undertaken new research in India, Ukraine and Canada with a view to the discussions scheduled for the end of October 2008. Dr. Richard Lemen categorizes the research in India as smoke and mirrors,10 while Indian activist and ban asbestos campaigner Madhu Dutta's expose on the Indian study condemns it as a waste of valuable resources with serious methodological shortcomings.11 The study from Ukraine is contained in a flimsy 32 page booklet and is clearly a propaganda exercise.12
As for the Canadian report, no one knows. Although work began on this document under the auspices of Health Canada (HC)13 in November 2007 and the text was finalized by mid-March, the publication remains locked away from prying journalists and the public.14 In recent months, scientists who had, in good faith, agreed to be part of the HC chrysotile panel have grown increasingly frustrated. On September 23, 2008, the panel's Chairperson, Dr. Trevor Ogden, published an online editorial entitled Canada, Chrysotile, and the Search for Truth.15 Expressing his disappointment that the commentary (which) has been written, submitted and peer reviewed has not been published, Ogden questions the intention of the Canadian government to develop a position paper on the health risk from chrysotile asbestos and the degree to which there is a consensus on this subject. Dr. Leslie Stayner, another member of the chrysotile panel, goes further in his paper: Canada, Chrysotile and Cancer Health Canada's Asbestos International Expert Panel Report, currently in press. What does the report say about chrysotile asbestos, Stayner asks. The response to that question reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes quip about the dog which did not bark.16 Stayner writes:
I and other members of the panel signed a contract that prevents us from releasing the contents of the report. However, I think what is more important is what the report does not say, which is that exposure to chrysotile asbestos is safe. Chrysotile asbestos as well as other forms of asbestos, has been recognized by the numerous scientific organizations to be a cause of lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis There is no new scientific information available or presented in our report that would alter this fundamental conclusion. Thus the report does not provide support for the argument that chrysotile asbestos should not be listed as a hazard by the Rotterdam Convention or that production and use should not be banned by Canada and other countries.
Stayner is categorical: there is no scientific evidence to support the industry's view that chrysotile can be used safely. Calling for chrysotile to be listed under the Rotterdam Convention, Stayner concludes that
the banning of asbestos is the only means for preventing a tragic repeat of the epidemic of asbestos related diseases that is still occurring in the U.S. and Europe in the developing countries that are currently importing and using chrysotile asbestos from Canada and other countries.
Plus Ca Change?
Will the 2008 discussions on listing chrysotile on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention be a repeat of the 2004 and 2006 fiascos? Has anything changed to prevent this happening? Well, in fact, yes a lot has changed. At the previous meetings, civil society was woefully underrepresented. How could it be otherwise when plane fares and lodging in Geneva put the attendance at such a high profile meeting well beyond the budget of most NGOs and activists? This time though asbestos lobbyists will be out in force,17 civil society will be represented with many registrants from the Rotterdam Convention Alliance (ROCA) in attendance. ROCA, an alliance of global environmental, labor and health organizations dedicated to ensuring the effective implementation of the Rotterdam Convention, has been mobilizing support for the listing of chrysotile, tributyltin and endosulfan. Its position paper urges parties to the Convention to uphold the scientific process, right-to-know of importing countries and principle of environmental justice:18
Increasingly, hazardous chemicals and pesticides that are banned or severely restricted in industrialized countries are being shipped to developing countries or countries with economies in transition, where resources to safely monitor and manage these dangerous substances are often lacking or nonexistent. The Rotterdam Convention address this inequality in exposure to environmental and human risk by empowering countries with the right to Prior Informed Consent. All Parties to the Convention have a legal and moral obligation to support the right to Prior Informed Consent in the Convention as an important tool for overcoming the widening gap.
Third Time Lucky?
Whether chrysotile will be listed this time around is anybody's guess. If the industry veto is ended, then the Rotterdam Convention may begin to fulfill its potential. If vested national interests succeed once more in blocking progress, then the Convention is dead in the water.
October 15, 2008
2 Ms Giannasi was in Austria as a keynote speaker at an asbestos conference organized by the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI); see: International Trade Union Conference on Asbestos
The Brazilians who were invited to Vienna by the Russian asbestos lobby to attend a spoiler conference on asbestos held at the same hotel and at the same time as the BWI event were:
3 In 2007, Russian asbestos stakeholders set up the International Alliance of Chrysotile Trade Union Organization, a one issue trade association dedicated to promoting the use of chrysotile asbestos to counter statements made in 2006/2007 by the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization and others which supported calls for a global ban on all types of asbestos.
4 Hamel D. Letter to Francisco Dornelles, April 23, 2001.
6 HESA News. French Asbestos Victim Group Hauled before Court by Canadian Asbestos Lobby. July 8, 2008.
7 Thibodeau M. L'Institut du chrysotile poursuit deux militants francais. La Presse. Montreal, September 21, 2008.
8 Fecteau N. Ottawa renouvelle son soutien a l'institut du chrysotile pour trois ans. La Tribune. February 21, 2008.
Press Release (D'astous P). Quebec Annonce sa contribution financiere de $600,000 a l'institut du chrysotile. March 17, 2008
9 These comments related to efforts to advertise an event held on May 23 & 24, 2006, in Montreal called The International Conference on Chrysotile: Chrysotile at a Turning Point, Results and Scientific Perspectives.
13 Health Canada is the Canadian federal department of health.
15 Ogden T. Canada, Chrysotile, and the Search for Truth. Ann. Occ. Hyg. September 23, 2008; online: http://annhyg.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/men065v1
16 According to an entry in Wikipedia: the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time" is now easily explained: the dog made no noise because no stranger was there. As Holmes explained, '. . . . I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others . . . . Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.'"
17 Clement Godbout, Chairman of Canada's Chrysotile Institute, G. Vivekanand and Brigadier A. K. Sethi, asbestos industry lobbyists from India, were registered as Observers on a list obtained in early September 2008; at that time, no members of Brazilian, Zimbabwean or Russian trade associations or chrysotile unions had registered.