Canada’s Asbestos Problem

In Canada, asbestos is so sacred that the Canadian Cancer Society struggled with a decision about whether to call for a ban on a substance that’s internationally recognized as a carcinogen. Martin Mittelstaedt reports in the Globe and Mail:

The cancer society had initially considered an asbestos policy that would have largely backed the federal government’s position that it can be safely used provided those importing it are informed of its health risks, according to a draft of the policy viewed by The Globe and Mail.

But the positions in the draft caused an outcry among occupational health groups and anti-cancer advocates, who argued the society would damage its credibility by accepting the government’s stand.

In recognition that calling for a ban is politically sensitive, the society is expected to say instead that it believes the use of asbestos should be eliminated, which is tantamount to a call for a ban.

The World Health Organization estimates that 90,000 to 100,000 people around the world die annually from asbestos-related conditions, such as lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and gastrointestinal cancers.

Of course, we haven’t managed to ban asbestos in the U.S., either, despite Senator Patty Murray’s ongoing efforts – and part of the blame for this lies with our neighbor to the North. Andrew Schneider explained the dynamics in a 2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article:

In July 1989, the EPA issued regulations that banned the manufacture, importation, processing and selling of almost all products containing asbestos. The ban was to be implemented in three stages over nine years. This, the agency said, would permit industries using asbestos to find safe alternatives.

Almost instantly, U.S. asbestos manufacturers, supported by the governments of Canada and Quebec province, sued the EPA.

On Oct. 18, 1991, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned the ban.
 
“It was not unexpected,” [Director of EPA’s Office of Toxic Substances Chuck Elkins] recalls. “The Canadians felt the ban was an anti-Canadian effort by the United States.
 
“We couldn’t convince them that the EPA staff doesn’t have the foggiest idea about foreign policy. This was strictly a public-health issue.”

[…]

Some U.S. diplomats are as puzzled as EPA officials in trying to pin down why the Canadians are so zealous in their defense of a Quebec industry that employs fewer than 1,600 miners.
 
“It’s politics,” says Steven Guilbeault, an environmental specialist with Greenpeace in Vancouver, B.C.

“It becomes understandable when you know the desire of the federal (Canadian) government to gain as much public support in Quebec as it can. Its support of Quebec’s asbestos miners must be visible to prevent the sovereignist movement from using the argument that the federal government is in no position to defend the interest of the Quebec population.”

Schneider also gets this explanation from former U.S. assistant surgeon general Dr. Richard Lemen:

“The answer is political. No one is willing to go up against the asbestos companies. The U.S. government is not willing to go against the Canadian government.

“Meanwhile, the public continues to get exposures that will kill.”

Health advocates on both sides of the border have our work cut out for us.

Comments

  1. #1 Celeste Monforton
    July 17, 2007

    At least one Canadian politician is a real leader in the worldwide effort to ban asbestos: Paul Martin, New Democratic Party, Member of Parliament (MP). He’s a former miner and provides a strong voice for workers’ rights. I met him at a small Worker Memorial Day rally on April 28, 2007 we held at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC. He encouraged all of us with relatives and friends living in Canada to send letters and petitions to their MPs urging them to end the mining and exporting of asbestos, and the Canadian citizen’s support (through their tax dollars) of subsidies to the Quebec asbestos mining industry.

    Go here to link to Paul Martin’s site. http://www.ndp.ca/patmartin
    Go here to see the petition; ask your Canadian colleagues to sign and send to their MP.
    http://patmartin.ndp.ca/ndp-drupal/files/patmartin/Petition%20to%20Ban%20Asbestos.pdf

  2. #2 Metro
    July 18, 2007

    With respect, Celeste: You mean PAT Martin. Paul is the shipping-magnate-turned-Prime-Minister we just got rid of. Which is unfortunate, as by any standard he was still better than Stephen (“We’re GREEN I tell you! GREEEEEEEN! And NEW! NEEEW!) Harper.

  3. #3 Celeste Monforton
    July 18, 2007

    Yes, sorry, I meant Pat Martin.

  4. #4 Graham Dent
    November 29, 2007

    I am doing some research for a paper on the sale of toxic products (asbestos, pharmaceutical drugs etc) banned or restricted in developed nations to developing nations in the context of a breach of a counties obligations under international human rights law.

    Can anyone assist me by pointing me towards any other sources of information about the size and nature of the issues you are pusuing ?

    I am also trying to track down the recent article you published on:

    “US/Nicaragua – Banana workers awarded $3.2 million US after chemical exposures” Can you point me to a source or name of case or other information to assist me in exploring the “human rights” implications of this type of activity.

    Kind regards
    Kind regards,
    Graham Dent

  5. #5 Mike Crill
    July 14, 2008

    And you have a town called asbestos still being occupied and dying from exposure.Now what kind of a example is this.Kinda like EPA and others selling Libby Mt as a safe place to live and raise a family.This is a deadly lie.What do you say to people,in a town called asbestos?Not that it is safe.bunch of murderers.relocate the humans and children and leave those who want to stay,deserve to stay.Then let the place/town die…forever….as a reminder of man’s ignorance to protect the future for those we leave behind….our children.Boy… What a mess we have left…Canada,put people,all people first in health and safety.If you kill off everybody,no one to work,live and breathe.Lets get real world….