Over 100 doctors and scientists from around the world have drafted a letter to Premier Jean Charest urging Quebec to stop the export of asbestos to developing nations. The letter was issued in late January, shortly before the premier left on a trade mission to India, the largest importer of Quebec-made asbestos.
The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), which sponsored the letter, cited statistics from Quebec that show that asbestos-related diseases remain a major threat to public health in the province.
“The Quebec Workers’ Compensation Board shows that 60 per cent of occupational deaths were caused by asbestos…. This gives a total of 612 new cases of asbestos-related disease in Quebec in 2004,” wrote CANSA in the letter.
Linda Reinstein, co-founder and executive director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization noted that the figures were inaccurately low. “Large numbers of deaths caused by asbestos-related cancers and cardiac arrest are not properly attributed to asbestos,” she said.
The majority of all asbestos produced in Quebec is exported to developing nations, where regulations on their usage are generally absent. “It’s sad to see workers in developing countries dying of preventable disease,” said Reinstein. “People in developing nations need money desperately, corporations take advantage of this, and workers end up working with asbestos in compromising conditions with no protection.”
According to the Canadian Press, Charest was questioned on the issue during a press conference in Delhi. He responded that his government has no control over asbestos exports.
Canada is the second largest producer and exporter of chrysotile asbestos in the world, and the majority of Canadian asbestos mines are located in Quebec. In 2002 Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources adopted a policy encouraging “municipalities to increase their use of products containing chrysotile.”
Kathleen Ruff of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs commented that asbestos use has, however, declined in the province.
“There is no legal ban. But except for in towns like Asbestos [Quebec] where asbestos is even used in pavement, there has been a large decrease in asbestos use. Quebec is removing asbestos from schools and workplaces, as once it is in place it is a problem for decades,” said Ruff.
The letter criticized Quebec for having a double standard toward asbestos exposure.
“We find it shocking that the exposure level you endorse for people overseas is 10 times higher than the level permitted by…other Western industrialized countries…. We applaud your government for seeking thus to protect Quebec workers from asbestos harm. We call on you to show equal concern for the lives of workers in the developing world” the letter read.
The industry, however, claims that if used properly, asbestos is not harmful. The Chrysotile Institute, founded in 1985, is a joint initiative by the federal government of Canada and the government of Quebec. According to Clément Godbout, the president of the institute, it “receives 60 per cent of its funding from the provincial and federal governments and the remaining 40 per cent from industry.”
Godbout also stressed that the institute’s mandate “is not to promote chrysotile itself, but merely to promote the safe and responsible usage of it.” The institute has said that chrysotile is safe for use if air contamination levels are kept below one fibre per cubic centimetre.
Godbout commented that a person working in an environment that maintains those standards, even over a long period of time, is subject to “a very low risk, certainly no more than that of the average worker in another industry.” To the anti-asbestos groups he said, “show us research that proves there is significantly high risk for our standard of one fibre per cubic centimetre. To my knowledge I haven’t seen any scientific reports or proof yet.”
In reference to the countries that import Quebec’s asbestos, Godbout said, “The information on safe use is available and we encourage them to use it. The small enterprises that don’t adhere to the safety standards should be shut down.”
In response to these claims, CANSA has stated in a press release, “The [World Health Organization]…and the fifty countries who have banned chrysotile asbestos, state that there is no safe exposure level for chrysotile asbestos.”
CANSA also stressed that the lack of awareness abroad is supported by the province’s attitude toward its use. They also criticized the asbestos industry for attempting to silence anti-asbestos science, citing various lawsuits and attempts at intimidation.
“The asbestos industry has tried to represent asbestos as a political issue of Quebec culture and pride,” said Ruff. She added that at the October 2006 UN Rotterdam Convention, Charest’s government successfully lobbied Canada to block the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the UN’s hazardous substances list.
McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum accompanied Charest as part of his delegation. On February 6, Munroe-Blum and Charest presented at a high-profile sustainable development summit in Delhi.