« International Day for Asbestos Victims »
Paris, Palais du Luxembourg, October 2012.
Presentation: Kathleen Ruff
Over the past century, Canada has been one of the biggest exporters of asbestos in the world. In addition to exporting a deadly product, Canada also exported deadly misinformation. Canada has been at the heart of the global asbestos propaganda machine.
When Canada’s longtime clients in Europe and the US started to ban or virtually stop using asbestos, in the face of increasing numbers of asbestos-related deaths, Canada decided it needed to find new markets to sell its asbestos. In 1984, the Canadian government, the Quebec government, the asbestos industry and the asbestos workers unions created the Asbestos Institute in Montreal with the specific aim of marketing asbestos to developing countries.
Modeled on the Tobacco Institute, the purpose was for the Asbestos Institute to appear to be a bona fide scientific institute and to disseminate research, financed by the asbestos industry, that claimed that chrysotile asbestos could be used, and was being used, under “safe, controlled conditions” and posed no threat to health. Chrysotile asbestos represents 95% of all the asbestos that has been sold over the past century and for about 20 years, is the only form of asbestos still traded.
Over the past 25 years, the Asbestos Institute received $50 million from the Canadian and Quebec governments and the asbestos industry to aggressively market the message that chrysotile asbestos is the good asbestos and can be safely used. In 2003, it changed its name to the Chrysotile Institute in order to better push its propaganda that other asbestos is bad, but chrysotile is good.
In 1997, the global asbestos lobby group – called the Asbestos International Association, which includes asbestos lobbyists from Russia, India, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Senegal, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Vietnam – moved from the UK to Quebec to work alongside the Chrysotile Institute. The Canadian government applauded this move, saying it confirmed Canada’s world leadership in promoting the “safe use” of chrysotile asbestos. In 2003, the Asbestos International Association changed its name to the International Chrysotile Association (ICA). It is still based in Quebec and lobbies around the world to promote the interests of the asbestos industry. In 2011, for example, the ICA hired a powerful public relations company, APCO Worldwide, to lobby in Malaysia to block an initiative to ban asbestos.
Literature published by the Chrysotile Institute, bearing the official emblems of Quebec and Canada, said a 99.8% success rate for “safe use” of asbestos had been achieved in developing countries. A study in Quebec showed that asbestos was virtually no longer being used in Quebec itself, but that in the handful of factories where it was still being used, there was a 0% success rate for “safe use”. Documentation was provided to the Quebec and Canadian governments showing workers in India handling Quebec asbestos with their bare hands. The governments ignored the evidence.
This “safe use” marketing strategy was very successful, both inside Canada and around the world. In Canada, up until four years ago, all the political parties in the Canadian House of Commons and in the Quebec National Assembly supported the financing of the Chrysotile Institute and it “safe use” of asbestos propaganda. On the international level, instead of decreasing to zero, as it should have, the global sale of asbestos has stayed around 2 million tons a year for the past 20 years, with sales in Asia increasing dramatically from 14% of global sales in the 1920–1970 period to 64% in the period from 2001–2007.
In the past four years, however, the asbestos industry has seen the catastrophic defeat of its propaganda, its public support and its political power in Quebec and across Canada.
This happened because public health experts, scientists, activists and asbestos victims publicly and repeatedly exposed the deadly lies of the asbestos industry and challenged political leaders and institutions to end their collusion with this shameful deception. As Amnesty International says, it was speaking truth to power and holding those in power accountable.
In 2008, over 150 leading scientists and medical experts, including more than a dozen in Quebec, signed a World Call of Conscience to Prime Minister Harper to Stop Obstructing the Rotterdam Convention. In 2006, at the previous Rotterdam Convention Conference of the Parties, Canada had lead a tiny group of six countries in refusing to allow chrysotile asbestos to be listed as a hazardous substance, thus enabling continuing sale of asbestos without even minimum safety warnings.
In January 2009, two Quebec medical experts, Dr Fernand Turcotte and Dr Pierre Auger, supported by others, sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper, asking that the Canadian government cease funding the Chrysotile Institute. They told PM Harper: “It is our view as Canadian experts in epidemiology and occupational medicine and as public health advocates that the Chrysotile Institute is endangering public health by disseminating misleading and untruthful information about chrysotile asbestos, especially in the world’s emerging economies…. The Institute’s misleading propaganda is financed, in large part, by the Canadian federal government. It is a slur on the reputation of the scientific community and people of Canada for the government to be funding such perversion of scientific information. But, this is a far more serious matter than a slur on our country’s scientific integrity. People’s lives continue to be put at risk if they put their trust in the Chrysotile Institute’s information.”
In September 2009, now 15 Quebec medical experts publicly challenged the Quebec government and signed a statement, published in La Presse newspaper, entitled Cessons les mensonges (Let us Stop the lies). The statement exposed the lies being disseminated by the asbestos industry regarding “safe use” of asbestos and stated “Cette infamie n’est plus défendable (This infamy is no longer defensible).” It called for an end to the asbestos industry and funds to be provided to the mining communities to diversify their economy.
In January 2010, a hundred scientists from around the world filed a complaint with the Quebec College of Physicians, stating that Quebec’s Minister of Health, Dr Yves Bolduc, a medical doctor, was violating the College’s Medical Code of Ethics by promoting medical misinformation regarding asbestos that would cause loss of life.
In February 2010, an Open Letter was sent to Normand Paulin, Director of Occupational Safety for Quebec’s Occupational Health & Safety Commission, challenging him for violating his professional Code of Ethics by supporting the deadly deception that Quebec’s asbestos was being “safely” used overseas. This letter was published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH).
In April 2010, more than one hundred scientists from 28 countries, sent a letter to Premier Jean Charest of Quebec, pointing out the deadly misinformation that the Quebec government was promoting and calling on Quebec to stop the mining, use and export of asbestos. This letter was published in the IJOEH and received major media coverage.
In November 2010, a full page ad was published in two Canadian newspapers with the heading “Stephen Harper’s Killer Legacy”, calling on Prime Minister Harper to stop exporting asbestos death. The ad was paid for and endorsed by asbestos victims organisations, ban asbestos organisations, trade unions, health organisations, scientists and leading figures from around the world.
In December 2010, the Solidarity delegation, with asbestos victims, a trade unionist and activists from Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, came to Canada to bring their personal, human message , calling on Canada to stop exporting asbestos. They held press conferences in House of Commons, in the Quebec National Assembly, and in Montreal. They held public meetings in Montreal and Quebec City. They held meetings with the Quebec minister; they met with the official opposition party that is now the government of Quebec; they met with the leader of Québec Solidaire, who introduced them to the members of the National Assembly as he presented a Bill to Ban asbestos.
The voices of scientists, activists and asbestos victims, ceaselessly challenging the asbestos industry and those who collude with its deadly deception, gained a huge amount of media coverage in Quebec and across Canada. When the asbestos industry responded, they just made things worse for themselves. They could not answer the powerful evidence that we put forward, so they resorted to slurs. They called the Quebec scientists who had spoken up against asbestos “a little gang of Talibans”. The Chrysotile Institute sent out a media release headed “L’institut du chrysotile considère loufoque la position des anti-amiante” (The Chrysotile Institute considers the position of those who oppose asbestos to be wacko). They attacked scientists, activists and victims as all being corrupt and being paid to oppose asbestos. They lost the battle of public opinion. Editorial after editorial was published in Quebec and across Canada, criticizing the shameful deception of the asbestos industry and calling for its end.
The Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, representing national and international epidemiology societies, recently published a Position Statement calling for a global ban on asbestos, endorsed by numerous scientific, ban asbestos and victims’ organisations around the world, which received major media coverage in Quebec and Canada.
The voices of scientific authorities, activists and victims,challenging the asbestos industry and its collaborators, have had significant political impact. All of the national political parties in the House of Commons, except for the ruling Conservative Party, have now called for an end to the mining, use and export of asbestos. In Quebec, only the defeated Liberal Party of Quebec still supports the asbestos industry. I want to pay particular tribute to the New Democratic Party of Canada and Québec Solidaire for their courage and integrity in leading the way in calling for asbestos to be banned.
The last two asbestos mines in Quebec have been closed down for a year and more because of a variety of problems – a landslide closing one mine (the LAC mine at Thetford Mines), depletion of the asbestos deposit at another (the Jeffrey mine at Asbestos), and bankruptcy and lack of financing at both. The owner of the Jeffrey mine, Bernard Coulombe, stated on Tuesday that the new Quebec government has cancelled the $58 million loan he obtained from the previous government and that the Jeffrey mine will not re-open.
Note that the Canadian government of Prime Minister Harper has not changed its position of supporting the “safe use” of asbestos propaganda, but has announced that Canada will no longer block the Rotterdam Convention and will give $50 million to help the asbestos mining area diversify its economy. The Canadian government attacked the Quebec government for killing the asbestos industry and said it would now be “illogical” for Canada to block the listing of chrysotile asbestos, as the asbestos ndustry would no longer exist in Canada.
If the Jeffrey mine had gone ahead with the $58 million loan from the previous Quebec government, it would have exported 250,000 tons of asbestos a year for the next 20 to 50 years, making Canada the 2nd biggest exporter of asbestos in the world after Russia and making Quebec once again the world leader of the deadly “safe use” of asbestos propaganda.
More remains to be done. We need legislation to be passed banning the mining, use and export of asbestos. We need a registry in Quebec and across Canada, showing where asbestos has been placed in buildings. We need assistance and support for asbestos victims and their families. Environmentalists in Quebec have already begun this important work at the grass roots level in Quebec, which is wonderful.
The asbestos industry in Canada has suffered enormous blows. Thanks to collaboration between scientists, activists and victims, in Quebec, across Canada and around the world, we have, we hope, forced an end of Canada’s shameful export of asbestos and asbestos lies.