Asbestos Pusher to the World: Canada’s Asbestos Legacy Kills Tens of Thousands at Home and Abroad
By James T Brophy, Phd, Margaret M Keith, Phd, Jenny Schieman, RN, Cohn (C)
May 15, 2007
Asbestos has been called the, “most pervasive environmental hazard in the world,” and in all its forms, including serpentine chrysotile, is recognized for its potent toxicity and is responsible for tens of thousands of preventable cancer deaths globally each year. Over 300 million tons of asbestos have been mined in the last century, and has found its way into thousands of products because of its resistance to heat, exceptional strength, and insulating properties.
The most prevalent use of asbestos today is in cement materials, mainly manufactured and used in developing countries. Chrysotile asbestos is the most ubiquitous form, representing virtually all of the asbestos mined currently around the globe. Canada has remained essentially alone among industrialized countries in failing to acknowledge and act upon the increasing incidence of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers and respiratory diseases.
We are in the midst of a global epidemic of asbestos-related disease unfolding primarily in industrialized countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that over 2 million workers die each year of occupational causes. 75 percent of these preventable deaths are due to work-related disease, and the rest to trauma. Ten percent of these fatalities occur among children where child labor is practiced. Cancer represents the largest component of occupational disease mortality. The single largest contributor to this workrelated cancer epidemic is without question “the magic mineral” asbestos.
For instance, throughout Europe, where scientists have estimated in excess of half a million cases of mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer would occur between 1995 and 2029, a total ban of this product has been legislated after considerable public pressure. Asbestos forums, regularly organized throughout Europe, the United States and other industrialized countries, involve medical and legal professionals, trade unionists, and representatives of victims’ groups, all of whom are committed to focusing attention on this totally preventable cancer epidemic. Yet in Canada, one seldom finds much mention of asbestos disease, even from the informed scientific community.
The government of Canada contends that Canadian asbestos chrysotile or white asbestos is a weak carcinogen. Canada steadily maintains this position in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Major health organizations such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the Collegium Ramazzini, and the World Health Organization (WHO) classify all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, as human carcinogens, and have determined that there is no safe threshold at which there is no cancer risk.
Asbestos remains one of the most glaring examples in all of occupational health in Canada of the gap between the scientific evidence of harm and the lack of “adequate preventive measures.” The Canadian federal government continues to argue for the “controlled use” of chrysotile asbestos.
The concept of “controlled use” is based on the erroneous belief that, in developing countries, there exist the legal infrastructure and the technologic capacity to reduce asbestos dust exposure to almost zero. In Canada, occupational health and safety regulations and workers’ compensation generally fall under provincial jurisdiction, with each province setting its own standards and policies. For example, in the province of Ontario, the asbestos exposure standard is 0.1 fibers/cc. Even with rigid precautions and controls, such an exposure poses a lifetime toll of five excess lung cancer deaths and two asbestosis deaths per 1,000 workers. These estimates do not include any projections for mesothelioma.
Further, these deaths are occurring under a Canadian standard that would represent “controlled use.” In contrast, other developed nations, such as Sweden, which has some of the most advanced health and safety protections in the world, believe that they cannot control asbestos exposures and therefore have banned its use.
With advanced capitalist economies rejecting in practice “controlled use,” developing countries are being left to deal with this hazard with minimal levels of protection.
For over 60 years the asbestos industry has known about the carcinogenic potential of asbestos. But, for decades, the industry actively kept this information from its employees and the public. Because of this unethical behavior and the toxicity of its product, many of the corporate producers and users of asbestos in the United States have now been forced out of business or are under bankruptcy protection, facing billions of dollars of liability for their negligence.
Today we are in the midst of a global epidemic of asbestos-related disease that is unfolding primarily in industrialized countries. Current exports and use in underdeveloped economies are setting the stage for yet another epidemic to emerge in the coming decades.
The ILO has calculated that 100,000 to 140,000 people worldwide suffer premature deaths from asbestos-related cancers each year. The WHO estimates between 5 and 10 million people will ultimately die from asbestos-related diseases. Yet, Canada continues to promote a product known to cause illness and premature death….