But Quebec, the home of Canada's only operational asbestos mines and the few hundred workers who man them, remains years behind the times. The province is ground zero for exports of chrysotile, the only form of asbestos still mined in Canada. In 2009, Canada exported 153,000 metric tons of chrysotile. Most of it went to India, with the rest heading to Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading newspaper, says the industry is worth about $90 million to Canada each year.
Chrysotile accounts for 95 percent of the asbestos used worldwide, which seems to suggest that it's playing a role in the 107,000 deaths per year that the World Health Organization attributes to asbestos-related diseases from occupational exposure. Canada uses little asbestos domestically, though the CPI reports that it's the world's fourth-largest exporter.
Appearing on the CBC recently, Canada's minister of industry, Christian Paradis, insisted that chrysotile is an acceptable building material if it's handled properly. A statement issued by his office reads, "All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions." I wish Canada's desire to shine on the international stage would prompt the government to search for a better explanation. Arguing that asbestos is simply part of our national identity, like curling, or choking in the Stanley Cup finals, would be more plausible.
This "proper handling" argument is not so much false as it's based on a premise that will never be true. In 2005, Quebec's public-health agency concluded, "In Quebec ... the safe use of asbestos is difficult, perhaps impossible, in industries such as construction, renovation, and processing." And as the Globe and Mail pointed out, Paradis must be reading different scientific literature than a senior Health Canada official who in 2006 recommended that chrysotile be listed under the Rotterdam Convention.
The head of India's occupational and environmental department said in 2007 that at least 100,000 Indian factory workers and millions of construction workers across the country were inhaling chrysotile fibers every day. He said most Indian workers didn't wear protective masks. Lemen told me the idea of safe asbestos use is "a myth" promoted by the Canadian government. And as the Lancet argued last year, no amount of safe handling can prevent an earthquake, like the one in India in 2001, which caused buildings to crumble.
Minister Paradis has also argued that the asbestos Canada sends abroad is unlike the stuff that was sprayed indiscriminately into the ceilings and walls of Parliament Hill. If that stuff in Ottawa is disturbed, tiny particles become airborne and can be inhaled. But if the material is handled carefully, his argument goes, risks are minimized.
But Lemen says the amount of asbestos one could inhale on Parliament Hill is "probably a lot less than somebody's going to breathe in India," where large clouds of dust disperse when a bag of the material is opened. "I think there's really no comparison," Lemen added.
Still, Canadian members of parliament don't deserve to be exposed to a known carcinogen. And according to documents posted online, neither do other Canadians. An Alberta public school requested asbestos abatement at a facility in Edmonton. After an explosion at an Ottawa heating and cooling facility, a tender was posted for emergency repairs, including "extensive asbestos abatement." And near the bottom of a tender for a water-treatment facility in my hometown of Toronto, there's this: "All materials used in the manufacturing of the equipment shall be asbestos and tar free; no exceptions will be permitted. ... The successful bidder shall therefore use alternative products." Lower down in the document, below the heading "Class A1 Carcinogens," chrysotile asbestos appears.
All this leads me to wonder: What makes something safe for Indian workers but poisonous to Canadian politicians?
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