Asbestos: Killer product or toxic PR? – by Mark Bonokoski (Toronto Sun – July 10, 2011)

Mark Bonokoski is a columnist for the Toronto Sun, the city’s daily tabloid newspaper.

Back in May, an international consortium of doctors, scientists, labour leaders and health organizations wrote a rather pandering letter to Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe.

And, in that letter, they appealed for “His Excellency” to back off reopening two old asbestos mines in the country he has already impoverished by murderously turning Africa’s certified bread basket into a certifiable basket case.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s name was not mentioned, but it was implied, citing the Canadian government’s support for the reopening of the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Quebec as the kind of “reprehensive and retrogressive” action that Zimbabwe should not emulate.

The World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation — claiming to represent 176 million workers in 151 countries — have all called for a global end of the use of any form of asbestos, citing it has led to the deaths and chronic disabilities of thousands of innocent victims from cancer and the respiratory disease of asbestosis.

So why, then, did the Harper government recently block an international agreement to restrict the sale of chrysotile asbestos, a white variant of the killer brown asbestos once used in insulation, knowing that it would face global condemnation?

Quite simply because it was the right thing to do.

The Liberal government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest, in fact, has already given Bernard Coulombe, the owner of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que., a $58-million loan guarantee to find new investors.

It is not the kind of money to simply toss away, and it is not worth diminishing whatever political fan base still exists in that region of Quebec — especially if chrysotile’s bad rap is the result of bad PR.

In one recent print interview aimed at diluting global hostilities, Coulombe likened asbestos to a “family with some bad kids,” arguing chrysotile is the least dangerous of the asbestos offspring, and therefore suffering from unfair condemnation.

“They say we are exporting death, but that’s not true,” he has said.

“They treat it like it was anthrax. If it was really as dangerous as they say, we’d all be dead in the streets (of Asbestos.) Why is the world against us?”

That’s a good question, particularly since mine safety has improved significantly since the bad old days of brown asbestos mining, and chrysotile asbestos is considered a safe product if handled properly and as labelled. And that is the Harper government’s argument. The industrial and commercial world, in fact, is filled with dangerous materials and solvents that demand similar precautions, so why should chrysotile be singled out?

If the worry is the handling of the product once the exports are received, and some Third World countries might not put the same value on human life, how then does that become Canada’s problem? After all, Canada exports a great many potentially dangerous products without over-the-top concern about what happens at the other end.

Even a local doctor in Asbestos is tired of the condemnation being hurled at his town.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Sun website: