Pressure on Canada's Pro-Asbestos Policy  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



International outrage, scientific warnings and political discontent are contributing to the build-up of pressure on the Canadian Government to reverse its asbestos policy. On January 6, 2010, a British asbestos victims' group urged the Canadian Minister for Health to adopt an asbestos management strategy which would include a national ban, a just transition policy for affected workers, the establishment of an asbestos buildings registry and the implementation of a national surveillance scheme of asbestos-related diseases. In its appeal to Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group wrote: “As Minister of Health, you have a special duty to protect health.”

One month previously, Aglukkaq had received correspondence signed by 43 Canadian public health officials, including more than a dozen in Quebec, which also supported a national ban on asbestos mining and use. According to CBC News, the Canadian Association of Physicians and the Rideau Institute, Quebec were “extremely disturbed by what they call misleading, inadequate and, at times, false information about the risks of asbestos found on Health Canada's and other government websites.”1 Just a few days later, Quebec's National Public Health Institute (INSPQ) poured further fuel on the fire with it's release of a damning report documenting an excess of asbestos-related deaths in the Quebec mining town of Thetford Mines.2 Commenting on the INSPQ risk evaluation, a Canadian journalist wrote: “The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma in the town was estimated to be 17 times higher than normal, largely because of the higher concentration of indoor and outdoor airborne asbestos found in the community.”3 A French-speaking expert added:

“The concentrations of asbestos in the houses of Thetford Mines are 4 to 232 times higher than those measured in the U.S. in public and private buildings with asbestos-containing materials…

The concentrations in exterior air at Thetford Mines are 215 times higher than those measured from samples taken from the whole of the U.S. They are also higher than in Montreal, Quebec and Tring Junction where no asbestos fibre was detected.”4

On January 8, 2010 outspoken Canadian MP Pat Martin reiterated his criticism of Canada's “hypocritical” position on asbestos in an interview for India Abroad, a weekly publication with a wide circulation amongst the Indo-Canadian community.5 The MP contrasted Ottawa's billion dollar asbestos removal program for Parliament with the country's asbestos exports to the developing world: “Without exaggeration, we are exporting human misery on a monumental scale.” In light of incontrovertible scientific evidence and the fact that “more Canadians now die from asbestos than all other industrial diseases combined,” the federal government's politically-motivated asbestos policy is, he said, “Canada's greatest shame.” Martin was even more outspoken a few months previously when he gave evidence to a Parliamentary hearing of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources.6 He attacked plans by the Committee to continue subsidizing the Chrysotile Institute, a body he disparaged in no uncertain terms. Over the last 25 years, the federal government contributed around $20 million to the Institute's coffers with substantial amounts also coming from the Quebec Government and the asbestos industry. With access to such large sums of money it is little wonder, Martin remarked, that asbestos lobbyists can “put on 160 trade junkets in 60 different countries.”

Other politicans are also making their ban asbestos views known. MP Dona Cadman recently informed Canada's Minister for Natural Resources, Lisa Raitt, of her view “that the production and export of asbestos is contrary to the best interest of Canadians.” In her letter, the MP also said “I will be unable to support any legislation that promoted asbestos or the industry” and “would love to see asbestos mining operations in Quebec shut down.”7 Pat Davidson, a Conservative MP, who has also gone public about his opposition to the Government's pro-asbestos policy, said: “I'm definitely not supporting the mining or export of asbestos.”

India, the country which imports more asbestos than any other, is Canada's best customer.8 Meetings held in India in December 2009 highlighted the disastrous effects of local asbestos consumption.9 International asbestos experts who took part in a New Delhi medical conference “Preventing Emerging Occupational and Environmental Risks in South Asia and Beyond,”10 from December 17-19, 2009 also met with NGO activists, campaigners and government officials during their time in India. On December 21, scientific and medical experts from India, Korea, Japan and the U.S. took part in an activists' Roundtable Conference on Issues Related to Asbestos Use in India which was organized by the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI); See Summary Report of the proceedings.

Despite all the bad news and setbacks11 which have been raining down on Canada's asbestos diehards, increasing exports to Asia are encouraging their plans for expansion. Bernard Coulombe, the President of Jeffery Mine Inc., is looking to foreign investors for the final $32 million needed to access underground deposits of chrysotile: “We have 200 million tonnes of proven ore reserves. It's good for the next 50 years,” he told Canadian journalist Jennifer Wells.12 In his public pronouncements, Coulombe is buoyant about the future. He remains determined to finish work on the underground mine and begin production of the fiber which, he says, is in such demand in Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan and Vietnam. There is little doubt that Coulombe's efforts have the support of the Quebec political establishment. At the end of this month, Quebec's Premier Jean Charest will lead a trade delegation on a visit to India. Judging by other such Canadian exercises, asbestos is likely to be a priority on the agenda of the upcoming discussions with Indian civil servants and potential customers; local stakeholders will take full advantage of the Canadians' visit to spread pro-asbestos propaganda through infomercials and newspaper advertisements such as the one which appeared in The Times of India in December (2009): “Blast those myths about asbestos cement.”

January 12, 2010


1 CBC News. Quebec health officials denounce asbestos. December 2, 2009.

2 Institut National de Sante Publique du Quebec. Présence de fibres d'amiante dans l'air intérieur et extérieur de la ville de Thetford Mines : estimation des risques de cancer du poumon et de mésothéliome. 2009.

3 Seguin R. Cancer risk to town unclear in report on asbestos effect. Globe and Mail. December 12, 2009.

4 Email from Kathleen Ruff. December 12, 2009.

5 Jain Ajit. Interview with Pat Martin. India Abroad. January 8, 2010.

6 40th Parliament, 2nd Session Standing Committee on Natural Resources. Evidence. April 23, 2009.

7 Jain A. The View from Canada. January 8, 2010. India Abroad.

8 An asbestos salesman in India, who represents the Canadian Jeffrey Mine, predicts that “India's asbestos usage could grow to 500,000 tonnes a year from 300,000 currently.”

9 Wells J. Canada's booming asbestos market. December 20, 2009. The Star.

10 Jain A. “There has to be political will in India to stop asbestos use.” January 8, 2010. India Abroad.

11 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Industry Suffers Major Blow in Canada. September 4, 2009.

12 Wells J. Meet Quebec's 'Mr. Asbestos.' December 27, 2009. The Star.



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