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End Asbestos Exports, Scientists Tell Charest

End Asbestos Exports, Scientists Tell Charest

Scientists from 28 countries, including South Africa, have called on Quebec Premier Jean Charest, currently in India on a trade mission, to ban asbestos exports. India is Canada’s largest importer of asbestos.

The controversy surrounding Quebec’s asbestos industry has moved up a notch with Premier Jean Charest’s trade mission to India, one of the biggest importers of Canadian asbestos.

In a letter to Charest, over 100 scientists from 28 countries called for a ban on Quebec’s export of asbestos to the developing world. Charest arrived in India on 31 January 2010.

The scientists say Quebec uses virtually none of the asbestos it mines, spends millions of dollars removing asbestos from its schools and buildings, and that its own health experts have shown that it is impossible to use any form of asbestos safely.

Yet the province continues to promote and export the product to developing countries “where protections are few and awareness of the hazards of asbestos almost non-existent.”

“This seems to represent a high level of hypocrisy,” the letter states. The scientists note that the asbestos industry in India has notified a number of scientists that legal action will be taken against them if they do not retract their published articles concerning the threat to health posed by chrysotile asbestos.

The campaign is being promoted by the Pennsylvania-based Environmental Health Trust and the Cancer Association of South Africa.

“South Africa used to export asbestos, but has now banned it. If a country facing enormous economic hardships like South Africa can ban asbestos, then why can’t Quebec?” said Dr. Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust, in a statement.

Asbestos was widely used around the world between the 1950s and the 1970s. Because of its status as a deadly carcinogen, the European Union banned the mineral over a decade ago. Thetford Mines in Quebec, a town of 26,000, is home to Canada’s only remaining asbestos mining operation.

If a country facing enormous economic hardships like South Africa can ban asbestos, then why can’t Quebec?‘ — Dr. Devra Davis

Despite its links to cancer and other health problems, several countries, mostly in the developing world, still import asbestos from Canada. The less dusty chrysotile, or white, asbestos is said to be a safer form of the product.

The position taken by the governments of Canada and Québec is that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely as long as strict precautions are followed. The Indian asbestos industry also claims that the country’s factories have safety protocols in place to protect workers.

The Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos lobby group, dismissed the concerns raised in the scientists’ letter.

“Instead of giving new scientific research or data, they are just launching accusations,” the institute’s president, Clément Godbout, told the Canadian Press.

“If they have new data and studies showing that the way chrysotile is used today in Canada and Quebec is an unacceptable risk for people, please send them to us because I’ve never seen such a study.”

The scientists also want Quebec to stop funding the pro-asbestos lobby. New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who has long opposed Canada’s asbestos policy, said no other commodity enjoys the protection of the Canadian government the way the $100-million-a-year asbestos industry does.

“More than 160 trade junkets in 60 different countries is what the asbestos industry brags it has done through our Canadian embassies, our trade commissioners, etc. Not even Canadian wheat is so aggressively promoted as much as the asbestos industry,” he told India Abroad newspaper.

He explained that “there’s an “emotional affinity for asbestos in Quebec” that stems from the great asbestos strike of 1949, traditionally portrayed as a turning point in Quebec history that eventually led to the so-called Quiet Revolution. It also helped launch the political career of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

After Rene Levesque was elected premier in the 1976, one of the first things he did was to nationalize the asbestos industry—the first national act of the new nation of Quebec, as Levesque put it.

“Now, the people of Quebec talk of asbestos with pride because of its history. It is too emotional a question for Quebecers. It is almost anti-Quebec to be anti-asbestos,” Martin said.

Martin, who once worked in an asbestos mine in the Yukon Territory, has been lobbying to have asbestos put on the international list of hazardous substances. He told India Abroad that both Canada and India should “join hands” in seeking a ban on asbestos in all its forms.

“Asbestos and tobacco are the two industries where the industry knows well it is killing people, but it survives by junk science and aggressive lobbying of politicians,” he said.


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