Canada’s lethal export
If Canadians think that exporting asbestos is a marginal, dying business, they ought to think again. Canada ships $100 million worth of chrysotile asbestos a year to developing nations such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, where it is used to make cheap, fire-resistant roofing, cement, water lines and other products. We are one of the world’s most aggressive exporters.
Moreover, Bernard Coulombe, the president of Jeffrey Mine Inc. in Asbestos, Que., a major producer, contends that “the marketplace is crying for chrysotile” and wants to ramp up production. As Jennifer Wells reports in today’s Star, Coulombe has ambitious plans to draw on 200 million tonnes of known ore reserves. He says Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan and other countries are eager to buy.
Yet Canada’s leading role in this dirty trade is nothing to celebrate.
The World Health Organization calls asbestos “one of the most serious occupational carcinogens.” Some 90,000 people die in Canada and elsewhere every year from cancer and other asbestos-related diseases from exposure in the workplace, WHO reports. While the industry maintains that chrysotile is less deadly than other forms of the mineral, it is still a carcinogen. And all too often it is not handled safely.
That’s why the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Labour Congress and others want Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to end the mining, use and export of all forms of asbestos.
Here in Canada, asbestos is being removed from the Parliament buildings in a meticulous multi-million-dollar renovation, even as asbestos cement roofing is being marketed as a safe, desirable product in shanty towns in the developing world. Worse, Ottawa managed last year to keep chrysotile off a United Nations watchlist that red-flags potentially hazardous materials, and requires governments to give prior consent to their import.
That looks like a particularly odious double standard.
What’s needed is a mustering of political will in Ottawa to get out of this ugly trade, and a generous federal/provincial program to provide support and retraining to the few hundred Quebec miners who would be affected. Canada should stop exporting a product that kills.