Breaking Canada's Asbestos Addiction
Market forces combined with ever-increasing national awareness of the asbestos hazard have dealt the final death blow to the Canadian asbestos industry. Increasing competition from foreign producers, the relatively high cost of Canadian production and the country's remoteness from customers in emerging markets have reduced demand for Canadian chrysotile and sealed the fate of the billion dollar chrysotile mining industry. During its asbestos heyday (1970s), Canadian chrysotile exports totalled 1.5 million tonnes/year and went to more than 60 countries; output from 8 chrysotile mines in the Thetford Mine region provided employment for 4,000 miners. Not any more!
The Bell Chrysotile Mine, located on the outskirts of Thetford Mines and operated by LAB Chrysotile Inc., shut down operations on March 29, 2008, after nearly 50 years of production. It was Québec's last underground chrysotile mine.1 The operators of the mine and the subsidiary which owned the mine have both filed for bankruptcy. In July 2008, the Jeffery Chrysotile Mine, the oldest North American open pit mine, will also cease production. By then, the only chrysotile mining operations left in Canada will be at the Lac d'Amiante du Québec (LAQ) Mine, often referred to as the Black Lake Mine. LAQ will provide employment for the relatively few miners needed to produce 60,000-200,000 tonnes of asbestos/year. 2
For the 26,000 people who live in the town of Thetford, the industry's collapse is both an economic and personal tragedy. As well as the loss of jobs and the erosion of the tax base, the closure of the mines has an iconic importance as reflected in the determination of Thetford's Mayor Luc Bethold to do everything possible to preserve the redundant mining facilities: Workers have willed us this heritage. We must safeguard it. One local initiative is to turn these facilities into a mining school for the retraining of redundant forestry workers as miners for the expanding copper, zinc and gold industries. Supporting this proposal, local trade unionist Yves Poulin admits the school will have an uphill fight against negative perceptions because of the health risks associated with asbestos mining.
It is inexplicable that after decades of occupational and domestic exposures, the people in Thetford remain so emotionally attached to the toxic fiber which has polluted their lungs, their homes and their environment that they cannot envisage life without asbestos. The hazards of occupational asbestos exposure in Québec have been known for many years:
The first study among the Québec asbestos miners was published in 1958 a cohort of 11,000 miners showed 38 mesothelioma cases, 657 lung cancer cases and 108 pneumoconiosis cases. In 1981, asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer cases were described among the Québec insulators.
Research conducted for the period 1984-1996 by Dr. Louise De Guire, an epidemiologist from the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (National Institute of Public Health in Québec), revealed that levels of asbestos cancer in Québec were amongst the highest in the world:
For men, only some parts of the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands had rates significant higher than in Québec. For woman no country surpassed Québec.3
There can be little doubt that the high incidence of asbestos cancer in Québec women is largely due to environmental and domestic exposures. Widespread contamination of the community by the fallout from asbestos mining operations, including the risk posed by unreclaimed asbestos tailings dumps, was documented in November 2007 when the paper Exploratory Sampling of Asbestos in Residences near Thetford Mines: The Public Health Threat in Québec,4 was published in an international journal. Tests on air and soil samples from 26 domestic properties in Thetford showed that more than half of the homes surveyed had dangerous levels of asbestos: If these houses were schools in the United States, they would be shut down until effective corrective measures were taken to bring down dust levels below this criterion.
Even as workers are being laid off, politicians continue to throw good money after bad in their attempt to placate Québec's aggressive chrysotile lobby. In March 2008, the Chrysotile Institute, a trade association tasked with promoting global sales of Canadian chrysotile, received confirmation that government funding would continue; it currently receives $250,000/year from federal coffers and $200,000/year from the provincial government. With this money, it takes the pro-asbestos message to developing countries such as Mexico and provides support for efforts by asbestos stakeholders such as asbestos businessman Luis Cejudo (Mexico), asbestos trade unionists Adilson Santana (Brazil) and Andrey Kholzakov (Russia) who are part of the global asbestos lobby.5 At the International Conference on Chrysotile which took place in Mexico City on December 13, 2007, Patrick Chevalie, from the Department of Natural Resources Canada, gave a:
detailed presentation to explain the recent history and the various and often complex procedures pertaining to the Rotterdam Convention. He also commented on the possible implications, should chrysotile be included in the PIC list of the Rotterdam Convention.
As usual, David Bernstein, the Chrysotile Institute's favorite scientist, and other so-called experts, well-known for their links to the chrysotile industry, participated.
Despite industry's best efforts, speaking out about Canada's asbestos addiction is no longer a taboo. Last year, the Canadian Cancer Society broke its silence when it called on the Ottawa Government to adopt a strategy to phase-out the use and export of asbestos.6 The Canadian Labor Congress had been expected to adopt a similar position in February 2008 but a vote on an asbestos resolution was postponed until Health Canada produced its report on the health risks from chrysotile asbestos.7 On March 16, 2008, the New Democratic Party (NDP) became the first Parliamentary political party in Canada to adopt a policy calling on the Government of Canada to ban asbestos in all its forms, stop the export of asbestos and stop blocking international efforts to curb its use.8 Ban Asbestos Canada applauded the NDP's ban asbestos position, stating:
We look forward to working with the NDP to ensure both real economic support for laid off asbestos workers and a comprehensive campaign for just compensation for thousands of Canadian workers afflicted with asbestos caused disease.
A Citizens' Human Rights Group, RightOnCanada, called on All the political parties (to) say their top commitment is to protect people's health. Let's see them put that commitment into action and eliminate asbestos use now. 9
On April 7, 2008 a Toronto seminar, convened by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and attended by 400 people, featured a presentation by Dr. Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Davis wore the OHCOW Ban Asbestos button as she condemned Canada's continued use and export of asbestos.
At the end of the evening, hundreds of Ban Asbestos Canada leaflets were distributed.
With Canada's chrysotile era well and truly over, it is to be hoped that the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) joins other members of civil society in urging the Canadian Government to lay the country's asbestos ghost to rest. In the run-up to International Worker's Memorial Day (April 28, 2008), Anita Normark, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers' International, sent a letter to the CLC in which she pointed out that construction trade unions throughout the developing world are struggling to avoid an asbestos epidemic such as has been visited on many industrialized populations. Québec's redundant asbestos miners and communities such as Thetford need government assistance to make the transition to an asbestos-free future. Withdrawing funding from the Chrysotile Institute and reassigning the money towards a feasibility study for the affected areas would be an excellent way to begin.
April 20, 2008
2 There is a discrepancy in available information on the likely annual production from LAQ; estimates vary from 60,000 to 200,000 tonnes/annum.
3 Kazan-Allen L. Canadian Asbestos : A Global Concern. Int J Occup Environ Health 2004;10:121-143.
After this data had been presented by De Guire at a 2003 conference in Ottawa, there was an outcry from Canadian chrysotile lobbyists; the official report which was published the next year said: Among women, no country shows significant excess (Table 8). We note, however, that the incidence of mesothelioma in Québec is greater than that observed in the rest of Canada, and in Sweden, Norway, Israel and several Eastern European countries. In fact the data in Table 8 showed that from 1988-1992, aside from some parts of Australia, the UK and Finland, the standardized incidence ratio of mesothelioma among women in Québec was the highest in the world. See: The Epidemiology of Asbestos-related Diseases in Québec. July 2004.
In May 2007, an update on this research was published which found that Québec women had been promoted to 3rd place in the global mesothelioma league. The paper found that after some parts of Australia and Scotland, the incidence of mesothelioma among women in Québec was the highest in the world. See: (in French) Epidemiolgie Descriptive des Principaux Problemes de Sante Relies A L'Exposition a l'Amiante au Québec, 1981-2004 [Descriptive Epidemiology of the Main Asbestos Health Problems in Québec 1981-2004]. May 2007.
4 Marier M, Charney W, Rousseau R et al. Exploratory Sampling of Asbestos in Residences near Thetford Mines: The Public Health Threat in Quebec. Int J Occup Environ Health 2007;13:386-397.
5 Chrysotile Institute Newsletter. February 2008. Volume 7, Number 1.
8 The Green Party has an official ban asbestos policy which calls for plans to fast-track the end to asbestos mining in Canada and assist the Québec government and industry in phasing out the chrysotile mining industry, but there are no Green Members of Parliament. See also: NDP Press Release.
9 Ban Asbestos Canada Media Release: NDP Asbestos Policy Applauded. March 16, 2008.