Asbestos is internationally recognized as a carcinogen and blamed for 100,000 deaths each year, but neither the U.S. nor Canada has managed to ban its use. Two mines in Quebec still produce asbestos, and about 95% of their production is exported. Last year, The Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt reported that Canada’s government is a strong backer of asbestos, and spent roughly $19.2 million from 1984 to 2007 to promote asbestos use.
In February, Mittelstaedt reported that Health Canada, the country’s health agency, had “quietly begun a study” on the dangers of chrysotile asbestos. He cited government critics who believe that the government plans to use the research to try to scuttle efforts to put chrysotile on the list of hazardous substances subject to international trade restrictions under the Rotterdam Convention.
The seven experts hired by Health Canada to prepare the report submitted it in March, but the report has not yet been made public – and now two of the experts are decrying the delay. CBC News reports:
[Report contributors] Leslie Stayner, head of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, as well as Trevor Ogden, the chair of the panel of experts, have each written letters to [Health Minister Tony] Clement decrying the delay.
“It is simply unacceptable for this report to continue to be withheld from the public, while individuals who have seen the report and our comments make erroneous allegations about what it contains to suit their political objectives,” Stayner wrote in his letter.
Last week, Bloc Québécois MP André Bellavance rose in the House of Commons to argue against growing calls to ban chrysotile, a form of asbestos, implying Health Canada’s new study supports his view.
Both Stayner and Ogden, however, said the panel was never asked its opinion on whether a ban on any form of asbestos was appropriate, and that it was only charged with examining the relative potency of exposure to chrysotile versus other forms of asbestos, and how best to estimate the risk of cancer from exposure.
“I want to make the record clear that nothing in the report would argue against the sensibility of an asbestos ban in Canada or for that matter anywhere else in the world,” Stayner told CBC.
In his letter, Stayner said that while the panel was not asked to rule on whether chrysotile asbestos can be used safely, “from a pragmatic point of view, my answer to this question would be that it [safe use] is simply not possible.”
Canada’s government doesn’t need this report to know that asbestos is dangerous – there’s plenty of evidence of that already. Having an official document label chrysotile as dangerous could help shift federal policy away from asbestos promotion, though, and that would be a welcome step.
UPDATE (5/27/08): Leslie Stayner has provided us with the text of his letter and given us permission to post it here:
Honourable Tony Clement
Minister of Health
278 Confederation Building
I have been informed that Mr. Andre Bellavante in a speech to your Parliament on May 12, 2008 implied that a yet unpublished report of the “expert committee” on chrysotile setup by Health Canada supported his position against a ban on the production and use of asbestos that has been proposed by your New Democratic Party (NDP). As a member of the expert panel I wish to express my deep concerns about how this statement is a gross misuse and misinterpretation of the findings from our report.
In fact our panel was never asked its opinion concerning the issue of whether a ban on chrysotile or any form of asbestos was appropriate. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there are any conclusions in the report that support that position. The primary focus of the meeting and report concerned the relative potency (i.e. risk per unit of exposure) of exposure to chrysotile versus other forms of asbestos (i.e. amphiboles), and how best to estimate the risk of cancer from exposure to chrysotile asbestos. Without divulging details of the report, I think it is fair to say that there was not complete consensus on these issues among the committee members. My personal view, based on years of studying this issue, is that the current evidence suggests that while chrysotile asbestos is less potent than other forms of commercial asbestos (i.e. amphiboles) for mesothelioma, that it is just as potent in causing lung cancer and non-malignant respiratory disease (asbestosis). The excess risk from lung cancer has generally been found to be substantially greater than the risk of mesothelioma in most epidemiologic studies. This fact implies that even if chrysotile causes less mesothelioma than amphibole forms of asbestos that the overall risk of cancer from exposure to chrysotile is only slightly less than that from exposure to amphiboles. In any case, the current evidence in no way suggests that risks for respiratory diseases from exposure to chrysotile asbestos are trivial.
Our committee was also not asked to comment on whether or not chrysotile asbestos can be used “safely” or in other words about the “safe use” of chrysotile. From a pragmatic point of view, my answer to this question would be that it is simply not possible. One only needs to look at the experiences of our own western societies to realize why this is true. The United States and countries in Europe are still experiencing an epidemic of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases which is only now beginning to peak in some countries. This has occurred despite the fact that asbestos has not been used or produced in significant quantitities in most western nations since the 1980’s. Asbestos that is in place in existing buildings and in hazardous waste sites in our countries continues to be a major problem. A dramatic example was the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 which released a cloud of asbestos fibers as well as other hazardous materials. The ubiquitous nature of exposure to asbestos fibers from construction materials makes it impossible to control exposures from these materials even in our most industrially advanced countries never mind in developing countries.
I strongly urge you to see that our report and the individual comments made by the expert panel be publicly released as soon as possible. Our group met in mid-November of last year, and our reports were finalized in March of this year. It is simply unacceptable for this report to continue to be withheld from the public, while individuals who have seen the report and our comments make erroneous allegations about what it contains to suit their political objectives.
Finally, I would encourage you and your Ministry to lend your support to the proposal for a ban on the use and production of asbestos in Canada. I also would recommend your support of the Rotterdam Convention proposal to list asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list, and the WHO proposal to ban asbestos worldwide. We have known about the hazards of asbestos exposure for nearly 70 years, and the evidence today that exposure to asbestos of all forms causes cancer and asbestosis is incontrovertible. The tragedy of disease from the use and production of asbestos in the West is now being repeated in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Canada has a pivotal leadership role to play on this vitally important international issue. I hope that Canada takes this historic opportunity to demonstrate what a great and noble nation it truly is.
Leslie Thomas Stayner, PhD
Professor and Director
Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
UIC School of Public Health (M/C 923)