Asbestos gets a new lease on death – by Colin Kenny (Montreal Gazette – July 6, 2012)

Senator Colin Kenny is former deputy chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources

If students want to fight injustice why haven’t they taken to the streets over the government’s latest decision?
Canada’s notorious asbestos industry has been given a new lease on death. A $58-million loan guarantee from the Quebec government will allow the town of Asbestos to resume shipments of this documented killer to developing countries, where impoverished construction workers will be forced to gamble with its deadly potential to tear apart their lungs.
Where are Quebec student protesters when Canada really needs them? In their focus on tuition fees, they never were quite able to make the case that the Charest government is morally bankrupt. Now that the Quebec government has agreed to bankroll asbestos exports denounced by medical experts around the world in order to restore 425 jobs in rural Quebec, it should be a lot easier to make the case.
The use and abuse of asbestos goes way back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The Greeks used its fibres to make fabrics more enduring, as did the Egyptians, who embalmed pharaohs in it. Since it was so fire-resistant, the Persians wrapped bodies for cremation in it, the better to gather the ashes of the deceased.
Along the way, some of our ancestors started to notice that things weren’t quite right with asbestos. Pliny the Elder warned his colleagues not to buy slaves from asbestos mines because “they die young.”
Pliny was largely ignored over the centuries. Then asbestos became a miracle strengthening and fireproofing ingredient in the construction world during the first half of the 20th century – until the workers who mined it and installed it started having serious problems with their lungs. Soon we were ripping it out of the buildings that we had put it in.
Two years ago the CBC aired a documentary showing bare-handed construction workers in India working with asbestos, their mouths covered only with bandanas – clearly demonstrating an awareness of possible lung damage and a lack of equipment to defend against such damage.
Compare that to the precautions taken in Canada in the handling of asbestos. From the Ottawa Business Journal, July 25, 2011: “Dressed like deepsea divers, workers from Inflector Environmental Services and Ashex Environmental Contractors will spend the next year removing the asbestos that pervades the West Block’s walls … some asbestos types are so dangerous that contractors will require a separate air supply and decontamination while working.”
While 52 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos, Canada continues to export it to those that have not – most notably India and China. The argument is that chrysotile asbestos will not damage lungs if proper precautions are taken. But what are the chances of Indian and Chinese workers being dressed up “like deepsea divers” and being provided with separate air supply and decontamination equipment? Anyone who has ever seen a construction site in the developing world knows the answer: zilch.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Montreal Gazette website:

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