When less asbestos is best – Globe and Mail Editorial (June 24, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous impact and influence on Canada’s political and business elite as well as the rest of the country’s print, radio and television media.

What does the federal government have against a five-page form? That’s what its opposition to “listing” chrysotile asbestos – a hazardous material – under the Rotterdam Convention amounts to. Canada was wrong to block an emerging consensus in favour of listing at a Convention meeting on Wednesday, especially given the small restrictions involved in the listing procedure.

Chrysotile, of which Canada is the world’s fifth-largest producer, is a material that can be used to make cement. Can be used – most developed economies have forsaken it for other materials, because chrysotile contains tiny fibres that, if exposed, can lead to respiratory ailments and even cancer. But it is a cheap enough alternative that growing Asian countries are a growing market for the product. An Asian medical journal recently reported that it expects a “surge of asbestos-related diseases in the immediate decades ahead” as a result.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis said in the Commons last week that “scientific publications show that chrysotile can be used safely under controlled conditions.” We’re not sure which publications he’s referring to, but presumably not the ones read by Health Canada’s director-general for the safe environments program, when he recommended listing of chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention in 2006; nor statements by the World Health Organization or the Rotterdam Convention’s review committee.

The listing mechanism in the Convention is modest. The exporting country simply produces a form that states the risks involved with the chemical, and includes information on precautionary measures and safe handling, to which the importer must explicitly consent. It does not ban export.

The great irony is that, on Wednesday, even India – our largest importer of chrysotile – announced its support for listing. Canada’s stance has pitted it against allies like the U.S. and the European Union, which produce and use almost no asbestos, and aligned it with producers like Kazakhstan.

The asbestos industry is worth $90-million to Canada. But what cost are we inflicting on ourselves, on our greater prosperity, on our international reputation, and on the health of human beings, by clinging to this unsafe material?

Please go to the Globe and Mail website to read commentary on this editorial: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/when-less-asbestos-is-best/article2071600/