Canada’s toxic asbestos trade – Toronto Star Editorial Comment – June 25, 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.

For years the federal government has been warned by doctors, environmentalists, unions, even Health Canada, about the deadly impact of asbestos. But Ottawa remains intransigent about curbing exports of this harmful mineral. Once again this week it opposed listing chrysotile asbestos on the United Nations’ list of dangerous materials. Once again it acted irresponsibly.

At a summit in Switzerland to discuss the Rotterdam Convention — a UN treaty on the international trading of hazardous substances — Canadian officials quietly blocked the inclusion of asbestos on the list of dangerous materials, joining such countries as Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The hypocrisy is staggering. The federal government has spent millions to clear its own buildings of this noxious material — including taking it out of 24 Sussex Drive to protect the Prime Minister and his family. Canadian companies, schools and homeowners have also removed asbestos from their structures. Yet we happily export it.

Asbestos kills. The World Health Organization calls it “one of the most serious occupational carcinogens” and notes that it’s a factor in 90,000 deaths each year. But we keep selling more than $100 million of it each year to countries such as India and Indonesia, where it is used in the manufacture of cement and auto parts. We even market it with a Canadian flag logo, leaving the impression it is stamped with government approval.

Including chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention would mean having to warn purchasing countries there are hazards associated with it. That would be the responsible thing to do. But Ottawa keeps insisting that, if handled properly, chrysotile is safe. If that’s the case, why have we spent so many millions to remove it from our own homes and offices?

The asbestos industry in Quebec has been dying for years and employs only about 300 people. There’s no future in these operations. The miners should be given help to find new jobs or a decent pension and the mines left to wither away. This toxic trade needs to end.