Last week, the Canadian government successfully and unilaterally stonewalled efforts to list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical at a United Nations conference in Switzerland.
According to Michael Stanley-Jones of the UN Environment Program, “[Canada] intervened in the chemicals contact group meeting … and opposed listing”. This is the third time that Canada has derailed efforts to list the deadly mineral under the Rotterdam Convention.
Following Canada’s lead, the only countries that opposed listing asbestos under the convention were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. Even India, one of Canada’s largest asbestos customers and the leader behind efforts at COP 4 against listing, changed its stance.
Asbestos is a potent carcinogen, and is known to cause pleural plaques, asbestosis, mesothelioma, as well as cancers of the lung, esophagus, and colon. For over 100 years, scientific evidence has demonstrated the dangers of asbestos.
Canada is the only advanced industrialized country that exports asbestos, and does so predominantly to the developing world where there are few health and safety standards. The Canadian position is widely considered hypocritical because the country exports a mineral banned in domestic construction, and have spent millions ridding parliamentary buildings in Ottawa of the toxic substance, all while lobbying extensively to ensure that asbestos remains unregulated.
The centre of controversy currently is a new asbestos mine proposed in Quebec that would export 5 million pounds of asbestos to Asia.
How can Canada conscionably export cancer-causing asbestos to the developing world given the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that asbestos is carcinogenic? The key to that question lies in an extensive government and industry-backed lobbying and misinformation campaign that operates on an international scale, with Canada at its centre.
Like Big Tobacco did years before with the Council for Tobacco Research, the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute was founded in 1984 amidst growing opposition to the industry and its health implications. Asbestos had such a bad rap that the industry chose to fight tooth and nail to salvage its profits by spending millions on misinformation and to fight bans. The asbestos industry colluded with the Canadian government in an effort to use various means to pressure, threaten, and intimidate Brazil, Chile, France, Lebanon, South Africa and South Korea not to regulate or label asbestos as hazardous.
In 2003, recognizing that it was increasingly difficult to peddle a known carcinogen, the Asbestos Institute was rebranded to drop the key word that the public recognized as dangerous and deadly. The Chrysotile Institute (CI) was born with a mandate to market chrysotile asbestos as safer, and to suggest that it was not carcinogenic like amphibole asbestos. Though 95% of the world’s asbestos is chrysotile, industry figured the name sounded safer - sort of like Big Tobacco did with “light” cigarettes. Still deadly, just slightly less so, and the profits keep flowing. Instead of recognizing that the product is too dangerous, the industry and government simply engaged in image control.
The Chrysotile Institute alleges that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely and responsibily, and that it can be broken down and eradicated from the body. Industry-backed lab rat studies allege that chrysotile asbestos does not cause cancer. This directly contravenes prevailing scientific literature from the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the Canadian Cancer Society, all of which argue there is no way to use asbestos safely.
The Chrysotile Institute’s go-to “expert” is David Bernstein, who has received funding from the Canadian government, Chrysotile Institute, Union Carbide and Georgia Pacific in addition to the Brazilian asbestos institute. In fact, Bernstein has been accused of mispresenting his credentials, and is apparently not qualified as an epidemiologist, industrial hygienist, medical doctor, or pathologist, and not a single scientific body anywhere agrees with his views.
Despite these inconvenient facts about the industry’s favorite expert for hire, his talking points are parroted widely as fact. Even Dimitri Soudas, Harper’s communications director, argues that “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions”.
In reality, only industry-funded studies suggest that chrysotile asbestos does not cause cancer. The Chrysotile Institute’s stance reads like a page out of the big tobacco playbook: defer responsibility, create doubt, and encourage inaction. Doubt truly is their product, only in this case, it is developing and poor countries that will bear the true costs of the misery that is being exported by Canada.
The federal government funds the Chrysotile Institute to the tune of $250,000 annually to lobby on behalf of the asbestos industry, and the Quebec government matches that. Since its inception, it has received over $50 million in public funds. The group maintains that they promote the safe use of asbestos, and work to track regulatory developments relating to asbestos around the world.
Rather than promoting the safe use of asbestos abroad, the Chrysotile Institute is at the centre of the global lobbying effort of the asbestos industry. According to a report from International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the institute funds a dozen sister organizations around the world. These organizations then influence science and policy in their own countries. ICIJ tracked $100 million in public and private money spent since the mid 1980s in Brazil, Canada, and India, all to keep asbestos on the market.
The Chrysotile Institute also insist that they promote the “controlled” use of asbestos and the adoption of appropriate safety measures. But it’s not an accurate picture of the industry by any means. Reporting by the Globe and Mail and ICIJ found inadequate protection measures and widespread exposure to asbestos dust.
Now, to return to the question of the new asbestos mine that would export 5 million tonnes of asbestos to Asia. Quebec’s Economic Development Minister Clement Gignac is championing the government’s decision to expand the mine. A 2004 Institut National de Santé Publique (INSPQ) report found rates of mesothelioma among men in Quebec nearly 10 times greater than for the rest of Canada and the rate for women to be among the highest in the world. It is also believed that asbestos disease is under-reported.
Not only is Canada’s asbestos killing Canadians, it is killing people in the developing world. For the 400 jobs that the asbestos industry creates, why is Canada risking its international reputation and the health of millions to export cancer to the developing world? Will it move forward with a toxic mine, or follow the prevailing scientific evidence and help curb a worldwide epidemic of painful lung diseases and cancers?