Canada's Chrysotile Industry Takes a Page from American Tobacco and Funds Own Research
August 24, 2010 - Canada is not the only country to both mine and export chrysotile asbestos to developing nations-that list also includes Russia, Brazil and Kazakhstan. What makes Canada unique to the world asbestos trade is their federally funded Chrysotile Institute-an organization with a mission to "Promote the adoption and application of appropriate prevention and control measures, regulations, standards, work practices and techniques for the safe use of chrysotile."
Creating Doubt Over the Dangers of Chrysotile Asbestos
The Chrysotile Institute maintains that with proper precautions in a controlled-use environment with exposures below a threshold of 1.0 fiber/cc chrysotile does not present any detectable health risks. They go as far as stating that chrysotile, due to its unique chemical composition, can be broken down and eradicated from the body without ill effect. Studies cited by the Institute claim, contrary to prevailing scientific and medical literature, that even with high chrysotile exposure concentrations in lab rat studies, chrysotile does not produce a significant pathological response-after 90 days, with a fiber length over 20mm(microns).
According to the information presented by the Chrysotile Institute, the body can eradicate inhaled or swallowed chrysotile asbestos and therefore poses no long-term health risk. Yet the International Agency For Research on Cancer, the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment, theUS Department of Health and Human Services, American Journal of Epidemiology and numerous others disagree-stating that asbestos in all forms is a known human carcinogen with no acceptable threshold of exposure. It has not been demonstrated, at any level of exposure to asbestos, including specifically chrysotile, that there is a 'safe' level of exposure.
Contest Litigation - Industry Funds Own Research
Taking a page from the tobacco industry's own research program, the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association decided to follow suit-creating and funding their own research organization. The industry has maintained that contaminants in chrysotile, not the chrysotile itself, were the cause of excessive mesothelioma in Quebec's asbestos workers. "Like the tobacco industry, they've been successful at manipulating scientific theories to confuse the public about the real risks of using asbestos," says Dr. David Egilman, a physician and clinical associate professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Studies by industry-funded scientists have been designed to create doubt over the dangers of asbestos, manipulating scientific theories to confuse the general public about health risks posed by chrysotile. In asbestos exposure experiments conducted on rats by industry-funded scientist David Bernstein, it was reported that rats exposed to chrysotile showed no tumors or fibrosis of the lungs 6 days after the experiment ended. He also stated that the rodents were able to clear chrysotile from the lungs-with a fiber retention half-time of 6 days.
Such reports have come under scrutiny from other researchers. For example, an expert panel assembled by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that rodents clear short asbestos fibers from their lungs significantly faster than people (human retention half-time is between 400-700 days). Bernstein's experiment exposed rats over 5 days-humans that inhale asbestos and develop disease are normally exposed for years, not days, not to mention the accepted latency period of 10-40 years between exposure and disease development in humans. By carefully constructing their experiments, industry scientists create scientific record that supports the asbestos industry position, regardless of how relevant their 'facts' are to workers exposed to chrysotile.
Delaying Regulation & Promoting the 'Safe' Use of Chrysotile
Scientists don't create government policy and laws governing use of asbestos-politicians do. The Chrysotile Institute has been successful in influencing both national and international policy. In the United States, an outright ban of asbestos in 1989 was challenged by an asbestos industry lawsuit resulting in an overturning of the ban in 1991. Although strict limitations are in place for how asbestos can be used and sold in the US, the issue remains that asbestos products are still available to consumers under theEPA Asbestos Materials Bans.
When chrysotile was recommended to be listed under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention in 2008, a treaty that requires exporters of hazardous substances to use clear labeling and warn importers of any restrictions or bans, Canada, India and other chrysotile friendly nations kept the recommendation from gaining the unanimous support it needed to pass.
Despite the tactics used by the chrysotile industry to continue to promote their hazardous and carcinogenic product, an estimated 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. The Collegium Ramazzini, an international academic society that examines critical issues in occupational and environmental medicine, calls for a universal ban on all asbestos:
"All forms of asbestos are proven human carcinogens. All forms of asbestos cause malignant mesothelioma, lung, laryngeal, and ovarian cancers, and may cause gastrointestinal and other cancers. No exposure to asbestos is without risk. Asbestos cancer victims die painful lingering deaths. These deaths are almost entirely preventable."
Asbestos exposure and diseases are not a thing of the past or a single country problem. It is a worldwide epidemic that is prepared to see an entire new wave of disease hit populations all over the world. The scientific evidence unanimously supports the fact that asbestos, in all forms, is carcinogenic to humans. Until science, not politics, prevails on the world stage, lives will continue to be lost to a silent killer.