Neighbors Trade Toxic Hazards 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Canadian asbestos has killed U.S. citizens; asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the U.S. has killed Canadians. While anecdotal and some epidemiological evidence suggests that the bilateral trade in these carcinogenic substances is responsible for a devastating loss of life, the scale of the North American tragedy cannot be quantified as no national data on Canadian asbestos-related disease exists. Determined to safeguard the Quebec-based asbestos industry, the federal government refuses to acknowledge the existence of Canadian victims as to do so would confirm that the production and use of Canadian chrysotile (white asbestos) is hazardous.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, from 1900:

“The United States was the largest market for exported Canadian fiber. In 1930, U.S. asbestos imports from Canada were 181,000 tons or about 83% of Canadian production. This declined during the Great Depression in the United States in the early 1930s but picked up again during World War II. The United States imported around 65% of Canadian production in 1940. The ratio of U.S. imports from Canada to Canadian production was 78% in 1950, 37% in 1970 (as the asbestos health issue was developing), 6% in 1990, and 5% in 2000.”1

Between 1990-2000, total U.S. asbestos imports were 274,955 tons (t) of which 270,530 t (98.4%) came from Canada. While Canada is happy to sell the toxic fiber to its neighbor, it is not inclined to use it at home. During 2000, Canadian asbestos consumption was less than a third of that in the U.S;2 98.5% of all chrysotile produced in Canada that year was exported.

The U.S. has contributed to the North American asbestos disaster by shipping asbestos to Canada in the form of tremolite-laced vermiculite ore from the Libby mines in Montana. From the 1950s till the 1970s, the ore was processed at Canadian factories and Zonolite, a popular brand of home insulation manufactured from the vermiculite, was used in hundreds of thousands of Canadian homes.3 It is believed that 10% of Libby's vermiculite was sent to Canada; shipments of 1.5 billion pounds went to six Canadian provinces and were processed at plants in St. Thomas, Ajax, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary. When Herbert Buchwald of the Alberta Department of Public Health inspected a plant in Calgary he reported:

“What was noticeable of course was the amount of dust in the air, particularly during the bagging process… and the workers were not wearing any respiratory protection.”

Examinations showed that seven out of nine workers had respiratory problems. The levels of hazardous exposure experienced by Canadian consumers who, like their U.S. counterparts, used Zonolite to insulate their attics, are unknown:

“The insulation was easy to use. Consumers could install it themselves… just open a bag and pour it out, But the instructions never recommended the use of face masks. And there was no indication that the product contained asbestos.”4

On the front page of the April 1, 2004 issue of The Globe and Mail newspaper, an article entitled Hazardous Insulation Rife in Homes announced that, after decades of inaction, Health Canada, “the federal department responsible for helping the people of Canada maintain and improve their health,”5 is investigating the problems stemming from the widespread use of contaminated vermiculite insulation. The government's U-turn on Zonolite is believed to have been triggered by the tragedy of one Manitoba family, four members of which contracted mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer. Despite the current media furore about Zonolite, the actual Press Release issued by Health Canada reveals that the hazards are still being minimized:

“Health Canada is advising Canadians about potential health risks posed by some vermiculite insulation that may contain asbestos. This product can present health risks if disturbed during maintenance, renovation or demolition, However, there is currently no evidence of a risk to health if the insulation remains sealed behind wallboards and floorboards, isolated in an attic, or otherwise kept from exposure to the interior environment.”

The language and qualifications in the text are far from a clear-cut warning such as might be approved by Raven Thundersky whose sisters Mardina Mitchell and Melvina Mitchell died of mesothelioma, and whose remaining sister Rebecca Bruce and Mother Nora Bruce have been diagnosed with the same cancer. For seven years, Ms. Thundersky has been lobbying the Government for action on Zonolite which was used to insulate the attic of her childhood home on the Ojibwa reserve, 350 kilometers from Winnipeg. Due largely to her persistence, the federal government has now seconded officials from the Departments of Health, Indian and Northern Affairs, Agriculture, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Energy Canada to review the situation. Although Hugh Ryan, a spokesman for Indian Affairs, said “early reviews of the housing stock indicate use of vermiculite on reserves was not extensive,” the true extent of the contamination will not be known for some time. Pat Martin, a politician from the New Democratic Party, believes that a review by the federal government falls short of what is needed:

“They have to remove people from hazardous conditions. Another generation is being poisoned by this incredibly toxic material… It just accentuates what we know already, that housing stock in the aboriginal community is atrocious.”6

Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is worried that no one can say how many of the 93,000 houses on Canadian reserves are contaminated.7 He called for:

“an immediate, coordinated action plan to deal with the insulation issue that includes an immediate review of building records and equally important, a focused information campaign to let First Nations know about the issue and the plan for action…”

It is ironic that newspaper and TV reports about the insulation scandal appeared on the same day as a public meeting was held to discuss Canada's position on international plans to impose trade restrictions on the sale of chrysotile. While Ban Asbestos Canada, Mining Watch Canada, the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the Sierra Club of Canada and the Canadian Association of University Teachers demanded that Canada “stop pretending that asbestos is safe, and support 'Prior Informed Consent' requirements for all forms of asbestos imported from Canada by other countries,” asbestos producers, Quebec trade unionists and politicians from the asbestos regions relied on the threadbare arguments built on the “controlled use is safe use” philosophy. Until recently, asbestos vested interest have been able to manipulate Canadian authorities in relative tranquillity; the publicity generated by the Zonolite insulation scandal and the increasing strength of the Canadian Ban Asbestos movement brought the PIC consultation exercise to wider notice. Although, the deadline for written submissions is April 9, you don't need a crystal ball to predict what will happen; the political implications of defying the Quebec asbestos lobby will almost inevitably lead the federal government to veto the listing of chrysotile under the United Nations PIC Convention.

April 8, 2004


1 Virta R. U.S. Geological Survey: Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 to 2000. U.S. Department of the Interior.

2 In 2000, the U.S. imported 14,500 t of Canadian chrysotile and Canada used 4,674 t; 98.5% of all the chrysotile produced in Canada in 2000 was exported.

3 Laghi B, Smith G. Hazardous insulation rife in homes. April 1, 2004.

4 Zalac F. Deadly Dust. February 7, 2003. Accessed [April 6, 2004] website:

5 Health Canada website:

6 Laghi B. Ottawa on trail of asbestos in Indian homes. Globe and Mail. April 2, 2004.

7 Press Release: Assembly of First Nations National Chief Calls for Immediate Action to Deal with Asbestos Insulation in On-Reserve Housing. April 5, 2004. The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing First Nations' citizens in Canada.



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