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.