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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Asbestos – when public policy kills, who is responsible?

Canada’s actions on asbestos for decades is embarassing and should be considered criminal.   In the face of international scrutiny, national pressure from most major Canadian health organizations, and public opinion opposing asbestos, not only does Canada continue to manipulate the international acceptance of chrysotile asbestos, it invests and supports in the expansion of domestic mining of the sole purpose of exportation to countries where health consequences will occur.
Almost all forms and uses of asbestos are prohibited in Canada for health and safety reasons (and mostly banned from US, Europe and developed countries).  Yet Canada continues to mine, export and promote the safety of one of the six forms of asbestos. 
The Rotterdam convention www.pic.int/ sets a framework for international trade in hazardous substances, it does not preclude international trade just lays out the conditions for movement of hazardous substances. The other five forms of asbestos are covered by the convention.  Chrysotile asbestos was recommended in 2005 for addition.  Canada has been observed to have taken an active role in 2006 and 2008 meetings encouraging countries that receive its products to successfully oppose its inclusion.  The Canadian delegation was supposedly conveniently absent from the vote in 2008.  At the June 2011 meeting, it was debated again whether to add chrysotile asbestos.   (http://www.pic.int/TheConvention/ConferenceOftheParties/Meetingsanddocuments/COP5/tabid/1400/language/en-US/Default.aspx  agenda item 5.11 which also provides good background information on which decisions are to based).   Canada openly opposed inclusion right up to the week of the meeting and lead the efforts to prevent its addition.  http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1013166--canada-blocks-asbestos-from-hazardous-chemicals-list-at-un-summit   
Asbestos is associated with a variety of disease outcomes.  Most notably the rare form of lung cancer known as mesothelioma.  Even small amounts of asbestos exposure is associated with a variety of other cancers and interactions within Canada are tightly regulated. Canada has exported chrysotile asbestos to developing countries with less rigorous occupational health and safety regulatory frameworks, expectations and oversight.  In doing so, it has condemned some workers in those countries to a painful death. 
Such action if it occurred within Canada would constitute wilful negligence resulting in death and would be considered a criminal offence.  For a government who purport getting tough on criminals it is a major inconsistency. Standing in the background and no doubt supporting the efforts of the Canadian contingent  are; a powerful lobby group - the Chrysotile Institute; the Government of Quebec; and economic development activities for struggling economic areas of Quebec. 
All asbestos in Canada is mined in Quebec, and hence there is a special role for Quebec provincial policy in directing national action. The Government of Quebec has censored and rebuked scientists and my public health colleagues for speaking out and against the issue of health impacts and asbestos,  in favour of industry led statements on scientific uncertainty. So much for the freedom of expression of scientific evidence in the supposed democratic society of Canada. 
This past year, Canada has participated in publically funded loan guarantees for the refitting of the Jeffery asbestos mine near Asbestos PQ.   Thus, your and mine tax dollars are going to efforts that will result in people dying in other countries. 
How does it make you feel to live in a country that uses our dollars to kill our global neighbours?

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