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‘Safe for use’ – but not in Canada

Last week a delegation from the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, including cancer victims and widows, travelled from their homes in Indonesia, India and elsewhere to ask the Quebec government not to revive a dying industry that has brought cancer and death to millions of people around the world.

‘We felt the best thing was to give these victims the chance to appeal to the Quebec government as human beings, face to face,’ says Laurie Kazan-Allen, founder of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat based in London, one of a number of advocacy groups that provided financial support to help the delegation make the trip to Canada.

Among those victims was Jeong-Rim Lee, suffering from mesothelioma, an incurable and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs which she developed after living near a factory which used the material in South Korea. You can listen to an interview with her and another delegate, Anup Srivasta, on CBC radio here.

As Asian delegates met with Canadian officials and journalists in Quebec and Ottawa, the IBAS held a small protest in front of the Canadian High Commission in London, England, while anti-asbestos groups held their own protests in Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, London, Mumbai, Delhi, and outside Canadian diplomatic offices around the world.

There is now barely a week remaining before the Quebec government decides whether or not to guarantee a $58 million loan to the Jeffrey Mine – the announcement is set to be made between 20 and 30 December. This would occur during the annual low point in media activity – hardly a coincidence, say critics.

The possible reviving of the mine – one of the last remaining in Canada – has incited anger and controversy all year. Demonstrations like last week’s were seen in front of Canadian consulates worldwide on Canada day, 1 July, in the hopes that the country would finally cease exporting the mineral and funding the ‘scientific’ studies that support its use. In August this year it seemed that the mine was certain to close, but then in September the owner was given a $3.5 million line of credit by the Quebec government to allow the mine to operate long enough to court new investors.

Investors were found, and if the Quebec government matches their financing with a $58 million loan, the mine will expand and increase its output ten-fold up to 250,000 tonnes a year – roughly a tenth of all global trade. For the next quarter century Canada would continue to export asbestos to China, India, and other fast-growing economies in the Global South.

The key word is ‘export’: the Canadian government does not allow the mineral to be used in construction projects in its own country. Though Canada (and other developed nations) once used various forms of the mineral in thousands of applications, almost every white fibre is now exported.

The World Health Organization estimates that asbestos is responsible for one in three work-related cancers worldwide – a sad truth that is unlikely to change, given that more than 120 million people are still exposed every single day at work around the globe. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and there is no ‘safe limit’ for exposure.

Yet the Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal, promotes white asbestos as ‘safe for use under controlled circumstances’ – a claim ridiculed by all medical experts, including the Canadian Medical Association, which describes this as a ‘shameful political manipulation of science’. The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet drew attention to Canadian ‘hypocrisy’ last week.

Just days now remain before the announcement is made. ‘This really is the last stand,’ says Kazan-Allen.

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