World Cancer Congress of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC)
Montreal, August 28, 2012
Presentation, Kathleen Ruff
One month ago, on July 24, the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (JPC-SE), which represents a number of national and international epidemiology organisations, for the first time, launched a call for a global ban on asbestos.
The JPC-SE stated that a rigorous review of the epidemiologic evidence confirms that all types of asbestos fibre are causally implicated in the development mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other diseases. It noted that this conclusion is based on the full body of evidence, including the epidemiology, toxicology, industrial hygiene, biology, pathology, and other related published literature.
In its Position Statement on Asbestos, the JPC-SE not only put forward the most up-to-date scientific evidence, it also addressed the critical issue of why it has been so hard to make progress to protect populations from asbestos harm, when it has been known for more than a century that asbestos causes disease and death. Over 180 organisations and scientists from 22 countries have already endorsed the Position Statement. The list of endorsers, and other critical information, is posted on the JPC-SE website at jpc-se.org.
It is tragic that, in 2012, it is still necessary to challenge deceptive propaganda, which the asbestos industry and compliant governments continue to disseminate, claiming that asbestos is an excellent product that can be safely used in developing countries.
Even as I speak, we are witnessing horrific examples of this sabotage of science and this corruption of public health policy by the asbestos industry and its political allies, here in Canada and overseas.
Two months ago, the Quebec government gave a loan of $58 million to investors, who want to open an underground asbestos mine (the Jeffrey mine) in Asbestos, Quebec and export millions of tons of asbestos to developing countries over the next twenty years.
If the Jeffrey mine goes ahead, it will make Canada the second biggest exporter of asbestos in the world, after Russia.
Not only will Quebec be exporting deadly asbestos. It will also be exporting the deadly propaganda, officially endorsed by the Quebec and Canadian governments, that the asbestos will cause no harm. The Quebec government boasts that it will be the world leader in promoting the so-called “safe use” of asbestos. The battle in Quebec has serious global repercussions, as Canada has for decades been the international asbestos industry’s most powerful propaganda weapon.
As Paul Lapierre of the Canadian Cancer Society says, “This decision means the Quebec government is in direct conflict with global cancer control as all forms of asbestos cause cancer.” He noted that worldwide, 107,000 people die annually from disease related to occupational exposure to asbestos and that asbestos mined from Quebec is a contributor to this death toll. “This decision means that asbestos-related cancers, both in Canada and around the world, will continue to grow,” said Lapierre. “It’s imperative that the health of people around the world be put ahead of the interests of the asbestos industry.”
The Quebec government’s own Directors of Public Health oppose the opening of the asbestos mine, as does the Quebec Medical Association and leading public health authorities in Quebec and Canada.
But, as a columnist in La Presse newspaper noted, science is being trumped by politics and the Quebec government has chosen to reject its own medical experts and instead support charlatans.
Not only is the Quebec government contributing to an epidemic of asbestos-related deaths in developing countries, it is also exposing its own citizens to harm.
When it comes to asbestos, Quebec has the worst occupational health protections of any country in the Western world. Quebec regulations permit workers to be exposed to levels of asbestos ten times and hundred times higher than is permitted in Europe, the U.S. or in the rest of Canada.
The asbestos industry claims that no asbestos miner has been harmed by asbestos since Quebec adopted ”safe use” rules in 1975. However, a study just carried out by Dr Pierre Deshaies reveals that, since 2006, 163 asbestos miners at Thetford Mines were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and that some of these workers began working after 1975. Between 2007 and 2010, Quebec’s Workers Compensation Authority (CSST) registered 373 Quebec workers as having died from asbestos-related diseases.
As Dr Deshaies notes, this represents only the tip of the iceberg, since many cases are not registered. Only 21% of cases of mesothelioma, for example, get registered in Quebec.
In Brazil right now the asbestos industry is arguing that governments should not have the right to ban asbestos. A number of states in Brazil have banned asbestos. The asbestos industry is asking the Supreme Court of Brazil to declare the ban passed by the state of São Paulo unconstitutional.
The asbestos industry is thus endeavouring to remove the democratic right of governments to ban asbestos in order to protect the health of their citizens by. In 2000, the Canadian government, on behalf of the Canadian asbestos industry, tried to do the same thing at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Luckily, its case was twice dismissed by the WTO.
Scientists, who have been financed by the asbestos industry for decades to deny the overwhelming evidence of harm caused by asbestos will appear as witnesses for the asbestos industry at the Brazilian Supreme Court hearings. Three international “experts” will testify – two of whom (Jacques Dunnigan and David Bernstein) have in the past been financed by the notorious Chrysotile Institute in Montreal and the third having been financed by the Russian Chrysotile Institute.
In Brazil, as in Quebec, the asbestos industry claims that no-one is being harmed. The Brazilian Minister of Health, however, has called for a ban on asbestos and stated that between 2008 and 2011, 25,093 cases of cancers caused by asbestos were registered.
CALL FOR ACTION BY CANCER CONTROL AGENCIES
As the JPC-SE Statement says, it is essential that scientists and others speak out loudly and clearly to defend the integrity of science and to stop the sabotage of public health policy.
More than anything, the struggle to stop further, unnecessary and tragic asbestos deaths is a human rights struggle. Human rights means speaking truth to power and to hold those with power accountable for their actions. This requires determination and courage.
We have seen enormous change in Quebec and in Canada on the asbestos issue. Four years ago, it was a taboo topic. Every political party in the Canadian House of Commons and the in the Quebec National Assembly supported the asbestos industry.
Since then, particularly in Quebec, we have seen courageous advocacy by public health leaders to challenge the deception of the asbestos industry, starting with a Declaration, published by La Presse in 2009, Cessons le mensonge (Stop the Lies), signed by 15 doctors and health experts.
In 2011, showing integrity and solidarity with workers overseas, the Quebec Confederation of National Trade Unions called for an end to asbestos mining, use and export.
A delegation of asbestos victims, trade unionists and environmentalists from Asia came to Quebec in December 2010 to bring a direct, personal message, calling on the Quebec government to respect the universal right to health and not finance the export of asbestos.
Today, all the Quebec opposition parties oppose the decision of the Charest government to finance the opening of the Jeffrey asbestos mine. At the federal level, all the national political parties, except the Conservative Party, support banning asbestos.
I am very pleased to tell you that today, August 28, the Parti Québécois announced that, if elected in the upcoming September 4 Quebec election, it will cancel the $58 million loan to the asbestos industry and instead invest these funds in economic diversification for the asbestos mining region.
We have made huge progress, but we have not yet succeeded. We need more people to get involved, particularly organisations concerned with public health, especially cancer. We need the worldwide cancer control network, the UICC, to join the battle. The asbestos industry, just like the tobacco industry, is doing everything possible to increase sales in developing countries, where health protections are weak. The global cancer control movement needs to speak out against this double standard of deliberately causing cancer in developing countries. The commitment to prevent cancer needs to be as strong a commitment to protect the lives of people in impoverished countries as it is to protect lives in privileged, wealthy countries.
The JPC-SE has urged societies of epidemiology and public health organisations and agencies around the world, to show leadership and call for a ban on the mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos.
This is particularly critical in countries that continue to mine, use and export asbestos.
It would be an inspiring contribution if the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) asked its 400 member organisations in 120 countries to issue a public statement calling for an end to the use of asbestos in order to prevent further asbestos-related cancers, as the World Health Organisation has recommended.
In India, in Russia, in Mexico, in Peru, in Brazil, in so many countries where the asbestos industry is promoting deadly deception and is succeeding in preventing action to stop the use of asbestos, we need the leadership, we need the voice of the member organisations of the UICC to challenge this deadly deception.
All member organizations of the UICC and other organizations attending the World Cancer Congress, as well as scientists and health professionals, are invited to endorse the JPC-SE Position Statement, which calls for a global ban on asbestos. It is very simple to do so. Please go the the JPC-SE website at jpc-se.org and give your support.
I would like to end by paying tribute to those who have already shown leadership in this battle: the inspiring public health professionals of Quebec, particularly those working for the Quebec government; the leadership of the Canadian Cancer Society; the Canadian Public Health Association; the Quebec Confederation of National Trade Unions; the International Trade Union Confederation; the JPC-SE; the inspiring and selfless asbestos victims’ organisations around the world; the global ban asbestos movement; the Quebec environmental activists; and two political leaders who showed enormous courage in being the first to stand up to the threats of the asbestos industry and to call for a ban on asbestos – the late Jack Layton, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, and Dr Amir Khadir, leader of Québec Solidaire.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Public Health, and its president, Dr Luiz Augusto Facchini. Here is the inspiring message Dr Facchini submitted to the Supreme Court of Brazil on August 25, along with the JPC-SE Position Statement on Asbestos:
(Translation) ABRASCO supports a ban on the mining, marketing and use of asbestos in Brazil and supports scientific organizations and social movements fighting for this ban worldwide. The evidence accumulated over many decades is unequivocal regarding its harmful effect on the health of workers and the population, especially in the occurrence of lung cancer and other serious diseases. We consider the arguments in favour of the safe use of asbestos and the need for production of new scientific evidence to be without merit. We advocate that the precautionary principle and the protection of public health should be respected in favor of banning asbestos throughout the national territory. Our country should not be held hostage to narrow interests of powerful economic groups mobilized to accumulate significant financial gains, which promote disease, suffering and death of workers and citizens. Health and development in Brazil, the seventh richest economy in the world, require us to use the best available scientific knowledge to the benefit of our citizens and the welfare of our population. The public hearing underway in the Supreme Court is a unique opportunity for the asbestos industry, and economic groups who support the asbestos industry’s interests, to show global social responsibility and position our country as an advocate for health and human rights and not as a country that destroys the health of its population.
Kathleen Ruff is author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World. She is senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute.