Canada, A Major Exporter of Chrysotile Asbestos, Under Microscope in BBC Investigation

Canada Continues to Push Cancerous Product to Emerging Markets With No Remorse

July 29, 2010 - Canada, the largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos in North America, is under worldwide scrutiny after an in-depth investigation of their role in the world asbestos industry by the BBC. In 2009, Canada exported over 159,000 tons of asbestos to developing nations, while using less than 6,000 tons at home (as of 2006, the last date data is available).

The global asbestos industry is blamed for 90,000 deaths every year-scientists fear the continued use of asbestos could prolong the global epidemic of asbestos related diseases. The WHO (World Health Organization) confirms that white asbestos (chrysotile) "is a known cause of human cancer." The National Toxicology Program, a department of Health and Human Services, clearly states that "...exposure to asbestos causes respiratory-tract cancer, pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma (tumors of the membranes lining the chest and abdominal cavities and surrounding internal organs), and other cancers."

Yet pro-asbestos lobbying groups, including Canada's federally funded Chrysotile Institute, have spent more than $100 million since the mid-1980's promoting their product in Canada, Brazil and India-Canada's largest asbestos customer. The negative press from the BBC investigation does not bode well for Canada's public image-especially considering their dying asbestos mining industry is currently waiting for a $58 million government loan to stay open.

Proponents of the chrysotile industry blame decades of negative press, not scientific evidence or facts, for the downfall of a once highly profitable industry. No country has defended chrysotile as vigorously, and for as long, as Canada. In 2008, Canada joined India in lobbying against the inclusion of chrysotile under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, which would require all asbestos containing products to be clearly labeled and to warn product importers of restrictions or bans. The Chrysotile Institute maintains that chrysotile poses no risk to humans if handled carefully.

Closing Canada's Asbestos Industry: Short Term Job Loss vs. Long Term Loss of Life

The closing of Canada's mining industry should not hinge on the argument of job loss, an estimated 700 direct and 2,000 indirect jobs are supported by the asbestos industry. Compared with the estimated 10 million asbestos related cancer deaths worldwide by 2030 as predicted by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists' reports, the number of jobs lost to a defunct asbestos industry is small. By ending their participation in the asbestos trade, Canada also ends their contribution to worldwide asbestos disease.

Rather than the closing of Canada's asbestos mining industry being viewed as an economic decision, centering the decision on doing the right thing by not shipping a known carcinogen to impoverished nations for profit changes the landscape of the controversy. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said the Canadian federal government should work with Quebec to find new jobs and opportunities for workers in the asbestos industry-eliminating the economic need for asbestos jobs.

The US knows all too well the long-term effects of asbestos mining with the ongoing loss of life in Libby, Montana and the cleanup of the defunct W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. This is a harsh but real reminder of the harmful effects posed by asbestos mining.

Worldwide deaths related to asbestos diseases are expected to rise, and the effects of asbestos exposure yet to be seen in countries with large asbestos consumption rates like China and India. The US has already experienced the long-term health effects of asbestos disease. Over 50 countries have banned the use of asbestos for the same reason-cancer caused from asbestos is preventable and there is no reason to subject the public to a known carcinogen.