Canada's deadly export

Many years ago I received a call on a Sunday morning from Canadian Broadcasting asking if I would be on their live weekend radio show. They were scheduled to interview the Canadian Minister of Mines (or some such title, I forget what) about continued Canadian exports of asbestos. One of the things I used to joke about was that the asbestos industry and their allies would say anything, including asbestos was so safe you could eat it for breakfast. It was a joke. I thought.

Because this Canadian official got on the radio and said (I heard it with my own ears) that Canadian asbestos was safe and he'd be glad to put a teaspoon of it in his coffee and drink it for breakfast. Holy shit! It wasn't a joke. They actually said it.

I was reminded of that experience yesterday when I read about the current negotiations over the Rotterdam Convention, the major international treaty restricting export of hazardous materials. Its importance was tragically illustrated recently when a steaming pile of exported toxic material sickened and killed innocent people in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Canada produces and exports chrysotile asbestos, perhaps the leading cancer causing agent in the world after tobacco smoking. They do not want the privilege of exposing other people restricted, although Canada herself restricts it for its own people:

Under the Hazardous Products Act, the use of asbestos in some consumer products is prohibited. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, asbestos is on the list of toxic substances, and a regulation places limits on releases of asbestos from mines and mills.

Conclusive evidence that every type of asbestos is carcinogenic has led many industrialized nations (including Australia and all 25 members of the European Union) to ban the import, sale and use of asbestos. The International Labour Organization also supports a global ban on the use of asbestos.

However, more than 90 per cent of the asbestos mined in Canada is exported to developing countries such as India and the Philippines, where adequate health and safety regulations either don't exist or aren't enforced. As a result, Canada is knowingly exporting a product that will result in thousands of deaths from mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Despite the well-established health hazards, Canada vigorously opposes international efforts to restrict global trade in asbestos. In 2004, Canada blocked an earlier effort to restrict international trade in chrysotile asbestos pursuant to the Rotterdam Convention. (David Boyd, writing in The Globe and Mail [Canada])

Just how vigorously was illustrated in an email I received yesterday from the UK:

I guess it was to be expected that the Canadian delegation would behave appallingly at the United Nations meeting in Geneva on October 10, 2006. In the event, it was far worse then I could have imagined. For bureaucrats schooled in the esoteric art of negotiation, there are ways of making a point without being offensive. Dispensing with all thoughts of subtlety and conciliation, the Canadian spokesman was boorish as well as rude in his refusal to allow the categorization of chrysotile as a hazardous chemical.

At the beginning of the debate on adding chrysotile asbestos to a list of hazardous substances (Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention) on October 10 (Tuesday), the Conference Chair President Yue reminded delegates of the "relatively long period of consideration of chrysotile" by the Convention and the importance the chrysotile issue has for the viability of the Convention. President Yue asked delegates whether legal and procedural requirements had been met for including chrysotile on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list. Posing four questions on the Secretariat"s compliance with the Convention, President Yue requested that delegates consider these questions before commenting on wider issues arising from the PIC listing of chrysotile.

Canada, the first delegation to comment, aggressively disregarded the Chair"s discussion framework baldly stating:

"The Conference of Parties is a policy body comprising governments. Regarding agenda item 5e " chrysotile " at this time Canada does not support the listing of chrysotile asbestos."

Although the Chair attempted to return to a technical discussion about due process, asbestos producing and consuming countries followed Canada"s lead and, pursuing economic and political interests, put further nails in the Convention"s coffin.

As PIC listing can only be achieved by consensus, the entrenched positions taken by the minority, led by Canada, could throw the Convention into total disarray. To resolve this impasse, the Chair suggested that a Friends of the Chair Group, chaired by Argentinean Andrea Repetti, be constituted to see whether compromise was possible.[2] On Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 10) rumors were circulating that a compromise which had been brokered would be announced the next day (Oct. 11); no announcement was made. By October 12, no news was forthcoming and speculation was rife. As they grew frustrated waiting for news, delegates were holding Canada et al responsible for the potential collapse of the Rotterdam Convention: "As some delegates put it, the Convention finds itself on a 'hot tin roof' and its credibility being questioned."

As of 16:00 GMT on October 12, the situation remains unresolved; it is unlikely any announcement from the Friends of the Chair will be made before tomorrow, the last day of the conference. I will keep you posted.

Oh, Canada.

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In the old days we used to do a lot of stupid things. I trained as both a chemist and biochmist, in my younger days. We used to wash our hands in benzene, or dichloromethane. In class we produced hydrogen sulfide in test tubes in the open. Oh the list is endless... bit wiser now.

Some of these things happened out of ignorance. Some, I'm sure, were because of PR from industry. The other night I watched a PBS special on the crash & burn of the Hindenburg. Turns out it wasn't the hydrogen but the flammable outer covering and poor grounding that was the problem. Supressed by the Nazis in the late 30s after the Zeppelin scientists found out the truth.

chrysotile asbestos, perhaps the leading cancer causing agent in the world after tobacco smoking.

I'm curious about this statement.

Clearly the data have shown that asbestiform amphibole (riebeckite, in particular) exposure is related to mesothelioma and lung cancers. But weren't there population studies run in Thetford, Ontario that indicated no excess mortality in chrysotile miners that did not smoke? Nor any excess mortality in non-occupational exposures there?

Theford would be significant because there is little amphibole present, so exposures should be nearly pure chrysotile.

Do keep in mind that whereas amphiboles are double-chain silicate structures, chrysotile is a sheet silicate, with very different properties (it only becomes a fiber because it curls up due to interlayer misfits; otherwise it is more similar to biotite or muscovite). In fact, a colleague of mine published solubility results indicating that chrysotile would dissolve in lung fluids in a relatively short time.

Do you have newer data that suggest otherwise?

NJ: I am well aware of the literature on fiber type. The predominant form of cancer from asbestiform materials is ordinary, garden variety lung cancer, not mesothelioma. Epidemiological data suggests amphibole fibers are more potent in causing meso than serpentine (like chrysotile) but that chrysotile is at least as potent, if not more so, in causing lung cancer. Moreover, there is much more chrysotile used than either of the commercial amphiboles (amosite and crocidolite). Mesos do occur in Thetford and other chrysotile exposures, too, BTW. Whether that is the chrysotile or contamination of the amphibole tremolite is a matter of debate but is irrelevant to the worker.

Smoking is unrelated to mesothelioma risk but synergizes with lung cancer risk. The synergy is so great that it tends to minimize the asbestos-only risk, but that risk is still significant. Also bear in mind that exposure to miners (which is of a particular kind) is a small fraction of asbestos exposures, most of which is to chrysotile. Thus the Thetford experience is not representative of overall exposure and certainly is irrelevant to work with exported material.

Stupid observation, perhaps, but would it indeed be safe to consume this asbestos, as opposed to breathing it? My understanding is that the size/shape of asbestos particles lets them remain in the lung, instead of being exhaled, and over time that destroys lung tissue.

I'm just wondering if the asbestos apologist is playing with language in order to pimp his product.

Also, I always think of the Randy Quaid character in the National Lampoon "Vacation".

Cousin Eddie: "I got laid off when they closed that asbestos factory, and wouldn't you know it, the army cuts my disability pension because they said that the plate in my head wasn't big enough."

By wenchacha (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

wenacha: Not a stupid question. We don't know about ingestion. There is a significantly higher rate of colon cancer in asbestos workers and one assumption is that the mucociliary escalator protective mechanism of the respiratory tract brought the fibers up to the pharynx and they were swallowed. There is a priori no reason why asbestos fibers in the gut can't do what they do in the lungs -- induce cancer. But we don't know how common or significant this is.

This is no surprise. The Canadian government has become the handmaiden of industry, pure and simple. Most Canadians naively believe that our versions of the EPA and FDA operate like yours with a protection-based mandate, but their main job is to facilitate the introduction of new products and to grease wheels (and palms, where necesary)for industry. Our international delegates have behaved no less shamelessly in other international arenas--killing efforts to control terminator seeds, I think was another recent example.

Our "generous" donations to Third World countries are tied to the purchase of Canadian goods & services (like asbestos roofing for building construction). We export other toxic wastes to the Third World, to be handled in ways we'd never permit at home. We import Third World labour and prostitutes to work here in slavery or near-slavery. Our mining and resource companies behave atrociously in Third World countries--lying, stealing, cheating and abusing native peoples with abandon while appearing to toe the line at home.

Our Prime Minister announced this week that we're abandoning our commitment to Kyoto in favour of a "made in Canada" regime focusing on smog instead of greenhouse gasses (which our Environment Minister contends are not a priority for Canadians) and intensity-based targets that will allow emissions to increase as long as industry keeps growing. After all, we wouldn't want to harm Alberta's booming oil sector or Ontario's lucrative contracts to build SUVs and auto parts for the North American market.

Sorry folks, all those stereotypes about the nice Canadians, if there was ever any truth to them, are long gone, all gobbled up in the race to the bottom so that our companies can be tops on the world stage. Even our much-loved Mounties, those stalwart heroes in their spiffy red serge that are supposed to come to our rescue, are the focus of one lurid scandal after another--racism, paedophelia, brutality, corruption, cover-ups and worse.

If we had only known then what we know now... When I was a child in Ontario public schools in the 1950s our favourite classroom art project was making ash trays, figurines and wall plaques, out of asbestos! I loved the stuff!!! Was thrilled to be chosen 'monitor' to scoop out tons of the stuff into a basin & mix with water to a lovely goop - would bury my face in the sack to savour the aroma!! Of course when I die, as I am still (sigh) a smoker, my death will be attributed to tobacco - but I think much more likely to have been my early intimate relationship with asbestos? I dont think they use it in art classes any more!

gharris: Unfortunately we did know then what we know now. In 1949 the Journal of the American Medical Association accepted (in an Editorial) the rleaitonship between asbestos exposure and cancer. Studies of cancer in Canada showed the same relationship but the manuscript was "edited" by the asbestos industry (the Braun-Truan paper of 1957). As early as 1942, the world's first textbook on occupational cancer devoted almost 8 pages to the relaitonship between asbestos and cancer (which was first described in 1935). The Germans had already classified lung cancer as an occupational disease of asbestos workers.

There is a strong synergy between smoking and asbestos exposure, so the combination is especially dangerous. I would counsel you to stop smoking. But I guess you've heard that already.

I am having some difficulty unpacking your response, so please bear with me.

I realize that most of the cancers from asbestiform materials are, as you put it, "garden-variety lung cancers", and that smoking has a synergistic effect. But my comment about the Thetford studies referred to non-smoking miners (so discussing smoking is somewhat OT) and excess mortality.

You noted:

Thus the Thetford experience is not representative of overall exposure and certainly is irrelevant


chrysotile is at least as potent, if not more so, in causing lung cancer

As I read them, these statements are somewhat contradictory. The Thetford experience (high exposure to chrysotile fibers) is, of course, not representative of general exposure to asbestiform materials (much lower exposure to a variety of fibers, but most of which are chrysotile), but it would seem to be almost a laboratory-type study: Hold constant all variables but one and observe the result. In this case, high exposure to chrysotile fibers results in no excess mortality, hence low exposure to chrysotile should also result in no excess mortality. This would imply that any excess mortality due to fiber exposure should be due to non-chrysotile fibers.

Am I missing something here?

NJ: Thetford is mining, which is unrepresentative of most exposures (and by no means necessarily heavier). Most exposures are in manufacturing and product use. This makes the conditions of exposure different. We know that there is considerable excess lung cancer from chrysotile exposure with manufacturing and product use. The potency issue relates to amphiboles.