01 May 2009


Canada's asbestos problem

Asbestos Corrugated-Paper Pipe Insulation - Damaged at Flickr.comMine is a pretty sensible country, just like our stereotype, but not always. A key example is our bizarre asbestos industry.

Asbestos is nasty shit: "All forms of asbestos," says Leslie Stayner, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, "cause both mesothelioma and lung cancer." Anytime asbestos is discovered in old construction here in Canada, the location is shut down for thorough removal of the mineral. Numerous countries around the world have banned use of the substance outright.

Yet in a few Quebec towns, asbestos mining continues, supporting about 500 jobs and bringing in about $100 million a year. (My wife visited one of those towns, Thetford Mines, on a French exchange when she was a kid and the industry was larger.) Since it's illegal to use here, our asbestos gets shipped overseas, to India, Indonesia, Thailand, and elsewhere where it's still permitted. There, it presumably kills people by giving them cancer.

The puzzling thing is that the Canadian government acts like it's still the 1940s, arguing that the form of asbestos we mine and sell, called chrysotile, can be handled and used safely. Perhaps it can, though it seems unlikely—plus I highly doubt construction projects in developing countries do so anyway.

Even our erudite new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Ignatieff, seems to have been cowed by the asbestos lobby, moving from a strong anti-asbestos position a couple of months ago to a "we need more research" stance. Yet we've known for decades that the stuff is a substantial, carcinogenic health hazard in all its forms.

It's sad to say, but if Canada's asbestos industry were anywhere other than Quebec, it probably would have shut down years ago, especially since it is now such a small part of our economy. Continued support from our two major federal parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, seems to me a cynical political move, to avoid offending Quebec nationalists and the chrysotile lobby based in that province.

So one of our long-simmering domestic political quagmires keeps us selling a toxic mineral to the developing world. Not very sensible.

Labels: , , , , ,


Asbestos seems like a pretty toxic material. I briefly knew an acquaintance over a decade ago who bragged about how he was able to get paid 15.00$ an hour, without an education to remove the stuff from buildings. His attitude about being physically tough in the face of inhaled asbestos material seemed odd to me. Its not like he was gonna some how be able to put up his dukes to defend the structures of the particles from ever reaching his internal organs.
It may be mean to say, but I guess that was his "without an education" part talking.
Interesting write-up, Derek.
My introduction to asbestos was as a boy in a Scottish primary school.In one particular class I recall that we mixed the grey,powdery substance with water to make puppet heads. It hardened very nicely and was easy to paint when dry.We did not,I recall,have to take any precautions.Also,in that same town of [Carnoustie] I remember what was probably the first subdivision that I ever laid eyes on. Post WW2 some governmen t programme built several rows of identical houses. They were called "Prefabs" and the outside walls consisted of hard sheets of asbestos.I recall that my mum had a scrap piece that she would stand a hot pot on when taking it off the stove...Fast forward twenty years or so and I am living in North Vancouver,British Columbia.There,right next door to the waterfront grain elevators was the Cassiar dock,so identified in large print. It was the exclusive dock of the Cassiar asbestos mine in northern B.C..There was always asbestos on the dock waiting for transfer between train and ship.The Cassiar mine was reputed to produce asbestos with the longest fibres found anywhere.These were sold exclusively to the U.S.A. for use in their space programme [heat shields].Frankly,I don't know if they still use asbestos but I do know that Cassiar no longer exists as a mine.
Forgive the rambling...memories!
And don't be surprised that Canada still sells this product.The country that produced the blue beret peacekeepers also exports an unbelievable quantity of small arms and ammunition...oh,and tobacco too.
Be well,Derek, and thanks for your energy.
Over on Facebook, Ian Squair wrote in response to me:

"Perhaps it can, though it seems unlikely"
does not strike me as particularly rigourous research or journalism. Asbestos is a broad geologic term for a class of minerals; the characteristics of specific minerals within the class vary with the specific mineral, such as chrysotile, and more particularly, can even vary for a given mineral). So to label all forms of asbestos as bad simply because they're asbestos, is tarring a broad swath with one brush. Kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. One could likewise say that because the mineral chrysotile is composed of atoms and oxygen is also composed of atoms that we ought not breath oxygen. The significant characteristic of asbestos is typically the fibre length. Certain asbestiform minerals provide perfectly acceptable products for certain applications, and to impair the livelyhood of numerous people on the basis of a broadly characterised paranoia without consideration of specific circumstances is irresponsible.

I'll post my response to him in a separate comment below.
In response to Ian, I'll first note that I make no claim to being a journalist. But I have done some research. I link above to a news article on a Health Canada report, noting that "there is a 'strong relationship' between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos mined in Canada." (My emphasis.)

Amphibole asbestos is highly carcinogenic too. So: "All forms of asbestos cause both mesothelioma and lung cancer." (Again, my emphasis.)

Could chrysotile conceivably be handled and used safely? Sure, with a lot of work. So can radium, or plutonium. So can mercury. But Canada is not treating chrysotile as the hazardous substance it is, and is happily sending it abroad where it is not handled safely:

"Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely." (from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, 21 Oct 2008)

So I should have written something stronger, such as, "Perhaps it can, though medical experts say not."

Those are the specific circumstances of Canada's chrysotile asbestos production and sale in the real world. It is the continued mining and export of chrysotile in Canada that is irresponsible.