Asbestos: Canada is spending millions to remove it from politicians' offices while exporting it by the ton.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 30 2011 2:09 PM

Canada's Breathtaking Hypocrisy on Asbestos

Canada is removing asbestos from politicians' offices while exporting it by the ton.

Canada's House of Parliament. Click image to expand.
Canada's House of Parliament

The Canadian Parliament Buildings were completed in 1927, after one of the original 19th-century structures was destroyed by fire. According to a Government of Canada website, they offer "a fascinating blend of stateliness and vibrancy." If you drop by for a visit, you'll see beautiful vaulted ceilings and walls decorated with "saucy faces [that] grin at passers-by." The buildings, which sit high on the banks of the Ottawa River, are the home of Canada's federal government and a destination for tourists.

They're also packed with asbestos, the material that has for years been indisputably linked to various cancers and other diseases. So it's no surprise that a massive renovation that will include the removal of the deadly substance from the Parliament Buildings is under way. Three major buildings on Parliament Hill—West Block, East Block, and Centre Block—will have asbestos removed. An email from government spokesman Bill Badets gives a sense of the project's massive scope. Fifty members of parliament vacated the West Block building so that the renovation could begin. The upcoming rehabilitation of the East Block and Centre Block buildings will require 154 MPs to relocate their offices, according to Badets.

Asked about the price of all this work, Badets wrote, "It is premature to speculate on costs," but he said that the known cost to date for the West Block rehabilitation is roughly $863 million Canadian. (The U.S. and Canadian dollars are currently at near-parity.)

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A document posted online breaks down some of the necessary steps in the West Block renovation for any contractors who might be interested in tackling the job. The tender says the project will require the removal of drywall partitions, carpeting, and ceiling tiles; it will also require the installation of "temporary mechanical and electrical services" to keep the building running during construction. And all inaccessible asbestos will have to be "encapsulated" to eliminate health risks to the building's tenants.

This massive project makes recent events surprising, particularly Canada's opposition, at an international conference in Switzerland, to adding chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a U.N. treaty on hazardous substances. If asbestos were added to the Rotterdam Convention, Canada and other exporters would be required to warn all importing countries of the dangers of asbestos and inform purchasers how to mitigate risks.

The listing would not have required Canada to ban asbestos exports. It would have forced Canada and other countries to acknowledge what asbestos is: a material that has, repeatedly and consistently, been linked to various forms of cancer and other diseases. Canada now appears to be either oblivious to the health effects of asbestos or to be willfully ignoring them in the pursuit of export income.

Even India, which imports more Canadian asbestos than any other country, was in favor of adding the material to the convention. But Canada was resolute, and, because the convention operates by consensus, asbestos stayed off the list.

Asbestos is a group of minerals that became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries because they are strong, fire-resistant, and, most important, cheap. At one point, it was used in everything from children's toys to construction. Then miners started hacking up blood. And after studies piled up linking the set of minerals to various cancers, more than 50 countries banned the use or importation of asbestos.

Dr. Richard Lemen, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general who has studied asbestos since the 1970s, says the debate on the substance's health effects is over. He told me the scientific consensus is that all forms of asbestos are harmful and carcinogenic, and he ran through a laundry list of organizations that have concluded as much, including the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.