Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2007
Four decades since Canadians first became aware of the danger posed by asbestos, some experts are calling on Canada to stop mining and exporting the material.
Jim Brophy, director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), said the clinic receives calls almost every day from workers about some type of asbestos-related health problem.
Vermiculite, long used for insulation in Canadian homes, was just one of the many common products developed from asbestoes. Vermiculite, long used for insulation in Canadian homes, was just one of the many common products developed from asbestoes.
Brophy, an internationally recognized expert on the risks of asbestos, added that the frequency of calls to the clinic is higher this year than in each of the last three years. He said the number of worker deaths from asbestos exposure is expected to peak in the next decade.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that’s used for many industrial purposes around the world, and can be found in ceilings, walls and pipes. There are several types, but the most common asbestos is chrysotile.
It becomes a health hazard when the asbestos fibres are inhaled and become lodged in the body, increasing the chance of developing diseases, such as mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs.
The OHCOW fears mesothelioma, which can take decades to develop, will soar in coming years. Yet in Canada, there is no one keeping track, Brophy said.
“We’re probably alone among the industrialized countries in not documenting the extent of the disease and its impact on our society,” he said. “This is the leading cause of occupational disease and occupational mortality in Canada today. Completely under the public health radar in this country.”
Brophy said almost all international health agencies — including the UN’s International Agency for the Research of Cancer, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the Canadian Cancer Society — have called for asbestos to be banned.
Canada leading exporter
Canada, which first began mining asbestos in 1879, continues to mine the mineral in Quebec and exports it to many developing countries where it’s used mainly to strengthen cement. Canada, which is one of the world’s leading producers of asbestos, is among the few developed countries that hasn’t banned the material.
The government’s defence of chrysotile has two planks: that recent science proves this type of asbestos is much safer than others; and that properly handled, Canadian asbestos is safe to use.
Ottawa and Quebec City spend millions on trade promotion through the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute, run by the non-profit organization’s president, Clément Godbout.
While Godbout said asbestos used properly is not deadly, he avoided calling it safe.
“There is some propaganda around this subject,” said Godbout. “There is also commercial interest around this subject. There are lots more dangerous products and substances than chrysotile. For example, in some countries, they are building arms to kill people.”
Defence a delusion: expert
Barry Castleman, a leading American occupational health scientist who advises many of the global bodies which now ban all use of any asbestos, calls Canada’s concept of “safe use” a delusion.
“Because it’s been given up on in so many countries as hopelessly dangerous and unnecessarily so, Canada’s view is very much a minority view,” he said. “It really would be crucial if Canada, instead of pressing for its right to export more asbestos to the local chapters of the asbestos mafia in the Third World, would join the rest of the civilized countries of this world in shutting down the asbestos industry and saying enough’s enough.”
Retired electrician Bob Blakey, who worked around asbestos for 40 years in Sarnia, Ont., and watched five of his co-workers die from mesothelioma, wants to see the government ban asbestos use and production.
“Every other country is trying to ban it,” he said. “European countries have got bans on it and Canada is out there pushing this product like a dope dealer. … I think it’s criminal.