Mexico's Asbestos Plague
The publication of the March 2010 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine attracted major media attention in Canada1 as a result of a paper entitled Case-Control Study of Pleural Mesothelioma in Workers with Social Security in Mexico.2 It is a rare occurrence for a statistical analysis of epidemiological data to hit the headlines however the conclusion of the scientists who authored this paper was categorical: Canadian chrysotile asbestos3 is to blame for Mexico's asbestos epidemic:
The high AR (attributable risk) among exposed workers in this study (83.2%) indicates that the percentage of pleural mesothelioma can be attributed to occupational exposure to asbestos probably chrysotile, the variant most imported to Mexico from Canada Our results show a clear relationship between industrial use of all types of asbestos and MPM (malignant pleural mesothelioma), and in Mexico the major type of asbestos is chrysotile imported from Canada . According to records from 1994 to 2003, exports of the mineral asbestos from Canada to Mexico represented $114,713,210 4
The epidemiologists calculate that there are 1,500 asbestos-related deaths a year in Mexico, a country which in 2008 imported $3.6 million worth of chrysotile asbestos from Canada.5
The 11 page peer-reviewed paper has other findings which asbestos stakeholders will find disconcerting. The authors highlight the fact that medical care for Mexican mesothelioma patients is paid for by the government and not negligent employers: (medical) cost is fully covered by the health system, not by the companies that created the risk, because these diseases are not recognized as work related. To remedy the inequity of this situation, they urge the government to implement a plan whereby the polluters would pay for their misdeeds: medical expenses and pensions should be imposed upon asbestos manufacturers and importers in Mexico. Furthermore, the paper proposes that in order to safeguard the right to health and life as guaranteed by the Mexican constitution, the Government must ban the use of asbestos.
Coming within days of demonstrations mounted in Indian cities over Quebec asbestos exports to Asia,6 the disturbing conclusions regarding the situation in Mexico can only add fuel to the fire. Back in Canada, not a day goes by without calls from another sector of civil society for the asbestos industry to be shut down. The latest salvo was a letter sent on February 10, 2010 from McGill University, a former bastion of asbestos research, to the Premier of Quebec, the province where Canada's sole remaining chrysotile asbestos mine is located.7 On McGill letterhead, 12 leading Canadian physicians, health advocates and experts expressed their shock at Premier Charest's closed mind on asbestos; a closed mind, they wrote is a very dangerous thing, particularly in a political leader. 8 Ignoring international and Canadian advice, including that of Quebec's National Public Health Institute, Quebec continues its pro-asbestos policy. The letter writers ask Charest:
How do you justify your support for the industry lobby group (the Chrysotile Institute), which put out a press release calling the position of the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Cancer Society 'wacko?' Your government funds and sits on the board of this Institute, which lacks scientific credibility and behaves in such an embarrassingly insulting manner.
With dissension over Canada's dirty trade in asbestos growing, it seems the writing is on the wall for an industry which has, for more than one hundred years, put profits before safety and politics before morality.
February 13, 2010
1 Mittelstaedt M. Controversy brews over asbestos deaths in Mexico. February 12, 2010.
2 Aguilar-Madrid G, Robles-Perez E, et a. Case-Control Study of Pleural Mesothelioma in Workers with Social Security in Mexico. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. AJIM, vol 53 issue 3, March 2010.
3 There is currently only 1 operational asbestos mine left in Canada; it is in Quebec. For over a hundred years, the vast majority of Canadian chrysotile asbestos has been mined in Quebec.
4 Lalonde M. On hot seat over asbestos. February 12, 2010.
5 Because of the long latency of asbestos-related diseases, the hazardous exposures which caused the deaths now occurring in Mexico took place decades ago. At that time, Canada was the world's largest producer of asbestos. Data from the U.S.G.S. show that in 1960 and 1970 asbestos production in Canada accounted for 43% of global output. Total Canadian asbestos production from 1900-2003 was 61,165,286 metric tons, equal to more than 30% of all global output.
7 Egilman D, Fehnel C, Bohme SR. Exposing the Myth of ABC, Anything But Chrysotile; A Critique of the Canadian Asbestos Mining Industry and McGill University Chrysotile Studies. Am J Ind. Med. 44:540-557, 2003.