Asbestos back in the spotlight – by Fe de Leon and Sarah Miller (Toronto Star – June 14, 2011)

The Toronto Star, which has the largest broadsheet circulation in Canada,  has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Fe de Leon and Sarah Miller are researchers with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Over the next few weeks, Canada has two important opportunities to reduce its contributions to the mining and export of chrysotile asbestos.

First, Canada’s international reputation will again be under the microscope when countries convene in Geneva June 20 to consider adding chrysotile asbestos to Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. The convention was designed to facilitate information exchange on hazardous chemicals among countries. Canada’s position at these meetings is being monitored closely because it is one of a few remaining countries that continue to mine and export chrysotile.

Second, efforts by investors to reopen the Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos, Que., are in the works. Chrysotile from the Jeffrey mine is expected to be exported to numerous countries, mainly developing countries. Investors are relying on this global demand as they wait for confirmation by July 1 to determine if they are able to secure their investments. With secured investments, the companies expect to save 350 jobs at the mine.

The global right to know and providing countries the ability to protect human health by limiting exposure to asbestos would be significantly improved if parties to the convention, including Canada, support the adoption of chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention and investors in the Jeffrey mine fail to secure their investments.

These are outcomes all Canadians and elected officials should strive to achieve over the next few weeks.

Two important international agencies have outlined the dangers to human health from exposure to asbestos. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated all forms of asbestos with a Group 1 classification, which means these chemicals are considered carcinogenic to humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that over 100,000 deaths annually result from asbestos-related diseases. Canada’s mortality figures for these diseases are unknown because no federal database has been established.

Canada’s chrysotile is reaching the far corners of the globe. Some of the poorest developing countries, including India, Philippines and Indonesia, purchase Canadian asbestos. Workers in these countries are at risk of exposure to asbestos because of the lack of an adequate regulatory safety regime on its use and disposal. There is no mechanism in place for these importing countries to make informed decisions on chrysotile asbestos.

In the summer of 2010, Canadian labour and environmental groups sponsored Dr. T.K. Joshi, a well-known medical doctor from India, to share his experience with Canadians and political leaders about devastating impacts of asbestos on his community. Over the years, Joshi treated victims who had worked with Canadian chrysotile. He explained that asbestos workers in India continue to work in unsafe conditions while making wallboard used to build housing for the poor. These workers are not provided protective clothing or education that would promote the safe handling and disposal of these materials.

Asbestos is considered toxic under Canadian national environmental law. Freedom of Information documents revealed that Health Canada supported the listing of chrysotile to Annex III. Steps are being taken to protect Canadians from the impacts of asbestos exposure, including the removal of asbestos from the Parliament buildings. Despite these actions, Canadian asbestos workers, their families and others who were exposed will continue to pay the price for many decades to come.

Establishing prior informed consent by importing countries is at the heart of listing asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention as a hazardous chemical. Successful listing does not mean asbestos would be banned but rather creates obligations to exchange information on the toxicity of asbestos between exporting and importing countries. Potential importing countries would have the option to refuse imports on the basis of this information and take necessary measures to protect human health and the environment.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Star website:–asbestos-back-in-the-spotlight