There’s a lot to like about Canada (their health care system, for starters) but there are some things that are less than praiseworthy (I understate), and towards the top of that list would have to be a hundred years of peddling, with government support, protection and outright lying, a product that brought the world one of the 20th century’s greatest public health catastrophes: asbestos.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that exists in two main categories, the serpentine minerals and amphibole group. Asbestos saw myriad uses and 90% of those used the serpentine form whose main representative is called chrysotile asbestos. It is no longer mined in the US but the main source in North America was always Canada. Use of asbestos in industrialized countries has shrunk dramatically and the sole mine in Thetford, in Quebec, now only employs about 300 people. But they still export this fiber to places in the developing world and the industry is protected — and promoted — by the Canadian government.
Make no mistake. Asbestos is a deadly product. It causes a scarring of the lungs (an interstitial fibrosis) in workers and lung cancer and cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen in workers, their spouses and children and in consumers. The fragile confederation between Quebec and anglophone Canada has been exploited by asbestos lobbyists and pro-asbestos messages have infiltrated the news media with regularity.
I know quite a bit about asbestos and its history and used to joke that the Canadian asbestos industry would say anything, even that it wouldn’t hurt you to eat it for breakfast. It was just a joke. I thought. Then one weekend, maybe 15 years ago, I got a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) asking if I would agree to be interviewed on their popular Sunday morning live coast to coast broadcast. I was to come on after the Canadian Minister of Mines (or some minister, anyway, don’t remember at this point), who had been saying publicly that asbestos was so safe he wouldn’t hesitate to put a teaspoon in his morning coffee. Holy shit!, I thought. They really are saying you can eat it for breakfast. So I got on the phone and listened to the first part of the interview and he said it again!
The Canadian government, in fact, has been doing this for a century. Even in the decades where we knew how deadly asbestos dust was, they aggressively marketed it to the developing world on the grounds that doctors in those countries now knew well how dangerous it was and would protect the workers. I remember well a visit to a shipyard in Ismailaya, Egypt, on the Suez Canal, and seeing workers using asbestos without any personal protection. I asked the company doctor about it. He told me that it was his understanding that asbestos was harmless as long as workers weren’t exposed for too long. Egypt, let it be said, has one of the better trained medical cadres on the African continent.
But the resistance to this irresponsible behavior is growing in Canada. Quebec’s public health authorities are demanding that the government cease support for the mining and use of asbestos:
The group has sent a letter to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq criticizing the government for its support of the mineral that has been banned in many countries as a health hazard.
The issue is a sensitive one in Quebec, home to the country’s only operational asbestos mine, located in the town of Thetford Mines.
In the letter sent to Aglukkaq by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Rideau Institute, Quebec public health officials said they are “extremely disturbed” by what they call “misleading, inadequate and, at times, false information” about the risks of asbestos found on Health Canada’s and other government websites.
“This industry in Canada should not be promoted like it is currently with federal and provincial funds,” said Dr. Pierre Gosselin, a researcher affiliated with Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health. (Mines and communities.org)
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to support the industry and Canada’s health minister has yet to respond to her Quebec colleagues. Rumors are circulating that the provincial government is sitting on a report of asbestos cancer in the community near the mine. The Canadian public health institute report was delivered to the government in March (8 months ago).
Meanwhile I continue to drink my coffee black. No sugar. No cream. And no asbestos.