Urgent appeal to all Quebec political leaders: Take immediate action to better protect Quebec workers from asbestos

Tue, Feb 20, 2018

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Kathleen Ruff, RightOnCanada.ca

In an historic act, thirty leading Quebec health, union and asbestos victims organisations and health directors have launched a united appeal to the leaders of all four Quebec political parties, imploring them to put aside partisan politics and take immediate action to protect Quebec workers and the Quebec population from asbestos.

In a letter of February 16, 2018 to Quebec Premier Couillard and the leaders of the three other political parties, the Quebec Public Health Association, the Quebec Association of Specialists in Preventive Medicine, the Quebec Asbestos Victims Association, the Quebec Council of Construction Trades – International, the Quebec Federation of Labour – Construction and the Quebec Association of Young Physicians call for immediate action to make Quebec`s occupational exposure standard for chrysotile asbestos ten times more rigorous than it currently is. The letter is endorsed by an additional 24 Quebec organisations and health experts, including the Quebec Medical Association, the Firefighters Association of Montreal, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the School of Public Health of the Université de Montréal, the Canadian Cancer Society – Quebec, the Quebec Lung Association, and Directors of Public Health from all around Quebec.

At present, Quebec’s asbestos exposure standard is the worst in Canada and the Western world. It was set by the asbestos industry and allows Quebec workers to be exposed to one hundred times higher levels of chrysotile asbestos fibres than is permitted by the Netherlands, Switzerland and France and ten times higher levels than permitted by the Canadian government, other Canadian provinces, the United States, the European Union and other Western countries.

For too long, state the organisations, decisions regarding asbestos have been influenced by partisan politics to win the vote of some constituencies associated with the asbestos mines and trade unions that previously supported the mines, to the detriment of public health.

With less than a year until the next provincial election, the organisations implore Quebec’s four political parties to put aside political partisanship and take action without further delay.

Are the lungs of Quebec workers worth ten times less than those of Ontario and Alberta workers?

In a press conference held on February 18, 2018, Yvon Savage, a 73-year-old retired electrician who has asbestosis, told how in his work he had removed electric wires from ceilings with asbestos insulation. “Why do we continue to tolerate that Quebec construction workers are exposed to concentrations of asbestos ten times greater than what is permitted in other Canadian provinces? Are the lungs of Quebec workers worth ten times less than those of workers in Ontario and Alberta and a hundred times less than our cousins in France, where the standard is one hundred times stricter?” asks Mr. Savage.

Gilles Mercier, president of the Quebec Asbestos Victims Association, who was himself formerly a government occupational safety inspector, spoke of his sorrow in watching his father suffer and die from mesothelioma. “As the health consequences appear years after exposure, workers tend to trivialize the fact that asbestos is harmful,” notes Mr. Mercier. “The fact that the Quebec standard is too lax contributes to this trivialization. … We can do better than this and our politicians must act now.”

An unprecedented mobilization

When we heard the cry from the heart from the Quebec Federation of Labour – Construction, calling for stricter asbestos exposure standards in order to better protect the lives of their members, we understood that we, as scientists and doctors, could not be content to stay in our offices and health institutions giving services and advice. It was necessary for us to speak out publicly and become involved in the political debate on asbestos, states Dr. Isabelle Samson, president of the Quebec Association of Specialists in Preventive Medicine.

“Let us be clear,” says Dr. Samson. “What is lacking is not information. It is political will. We implore Premier Couillard and the three other political leaders to do everything in their power to de-politicize this issue, to prioritize the lungs of people ahead of votes in certain regions, and to ensure that the standard is tightened without delay.”

Asbestos is the biggest killer of Quebec workers

It is urgent to act now, the organisations told the political leaders. Asbestos kills more Quebec workers than all other causes of occupational deaths combined and in 2017 asbestos killed 121 workers, most of them from the construction, renovation and ore processing sectors.

Scientists have concluded that there is no safe exposure level to asbestos and Quebec`s own National Public Health Institute (INSPQ) has for almost fifteen years called on the government to make Quebec`s occupational exposure standards more rigorous, the organisations point out.

Yet, instead of acting, the Quebec government is holding public consultations on several substances, one of which is asbestos.

Concerns about projects to extract magnesium from asbestos mining residues

The organisations note that projects have been launched to extract magnesium from the millions of tons of residues left at Quebec asbestos mines. These residues, according to the INSPQ, may contain chrysotile asbestos at concentrations ranging from 1 to 40%. According to various elected officials, tightening the asbestos exposure standard could jeopardize the financial viability of these projects. Consequently, some politicians have sought to delay action on changing Quebec’s asbestos exposure standards, note the groups.

We do not oppose innovative projects to diversify the economy of communities that have historically depended on the asbestos mines, say the organisations. They ask Quebec’s political leaders, however, to demonstrate diligence and political courage and to act together so as to ensure that these local projects do not, once again and for a long time, eclipse the health and well-being of all Quebec workers and their families by maintaining the current high exposure standard.

Lowering the maximum possible the asbestos exposure of our workers is clearly an effective preventative measure in terms of health gains as well as economic gains, say the organisations. “In the face of this evidence, there is no need to wait yet more years before moving to action, nor to study the viability of projects based on false premises.”

“We fear that some see activities to transform the asbestos mining residues as a new Eldorado that must be promoted by delaying tightening the ococupational exposure standards,” said Dr. Louise Soulière, vice-president of the Quebec Public Health Association. “On the contrary, we believe that the major parties should seize the opportunity now being offered to them today to reiterate the importance that the health of Quebecers holds in their eyes by tightening the health regulations on asbestos with the least possible delay.”

Political power and misinformation of the asbestos industry disintegrating

The international asbestos lobby, funded primarily by Russian and Kazakhstan asbestos mines, continues to operate out of Quebec and continues to disseminate its deadly misinformation that exposure to 1 f/cc of chrysotile is harmless. The Canadian government, which was also previously under the control of the asbestos lobby, has now rejected this false information and in 2017 changed its occupational exposure standard from 1 f/cc to 0.1 f/cc. Now, in an historic action, leading union, health and victims organisations in Quebec have formed a common front to challenge all Quebec political parties to finally break free from the deadly influence of the asbestos lobby, to respect scientific evidence and protect the lives of Quebec workers and citizens.

“Quebec has for a long time ignored scientific recommendations in order to continue to encourage the use of asbestos in different products,” said Dr. Louise Soulière, vice-president of the Quebec Public Health Association. “This was dictated by political and economic interests: greater importance was given to money and economic development in the asbestos mining region than to the health and collective interests of the whole Quebec population.”

Around the world, those who have been harmed and continue to be harmed by asbestos will applaud this courageous, united action by Quebec’s leading union, health and asbestos victims organisations and health scientists to challenge the asbestos industry’s deadly misinformation and end its destructive influence over public policy.

Not only will it help to save lives in Quebec. It will also help in the global battle to ban asbestos everywhere.

  • Note: Quotes translated from the original French.

 

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