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Canada accused

It has one of the worst reputations of any product ever sold. Western nations banned its use decades ago and its name is now practically a byword for ‘lethal’.

And yet global production of white asbestos still stands at more than two million metric tonnes a year – the same as in 1960

So if more than 40 countries have banned the use of white asbestos (also known as chrysotile, the only kind still used), where is it all going? Emerging and fast developing economies like China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Brazil. Though disconcerting, this is not surprising: such nations are less likely to have the stringent health and safety codes in place as the developed Western nations that banned asbestos long ago.

But where the asbestos is coming from is far more surprising, and far more interesting: the world’s second largest producer of white asbestos is Canada – a nation that has itself banned the use of the carcinogenic mineral, and is in fact spending millions at this very moment to remove asbestos from the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. 

The scientific consensus is concrete: medical and scientific establishments have long recognized the carcinogenic dangers of asbestos, whose whispy white fibres breed a particularly painful and incurable form of cancer in the linings of the lungs, called mesothelioma. According to the World Health Organization there is in fact no ‘safe threshold’ for white asbestos – meaning that exposure to even the most minute dose, potentially just a few fibres, could spawn a cancer. They advocate a global ban on all uses of all forms of asbestos.

And yet in 2006, when international representatives attempted to add white asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a UN-kept list of hazardous substances, Canada blocked the vote, even though Rotterdam would not even prohibit the export and sale of chrysotile but would only require that exporting nations inform importing ones that the product in question is dangerous.

But white asbestos remains off the list, and unlabelled sacks of white fluff continue to flood construction sites in countries like India and Sri Lanka, where workers in flimsy face masks mix it into cement, releasing clouds of sparkly dust into the air (and carry it home in their clothes to share with their families). The Canadian Medical Association Journal has called Canada’s opposition to the listing of asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention a ‘shameful political manipulation of science’.

But according to the Chrysotile Institute in Montreal – formerly known as the Asbestos Institute (re-branded to avoid the stigma associated with the A-word) – white asbestos can be ‘safe to use’. 

‘The argument that you can use asbestos safely is the lynchpin,’ says Geoff Tweedale, a Reader in Business History at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and author of Defending the Indefensible: the Global Asbestos Industry & its Fight for Survival. ‘There is a long history of the asbestos industry corrupting science, in particular by censoring unfavourable studies and selectively choosing data. The argument that certain forms of asbestos can be used safely goes right back to the 1930s because being able to “prove” that white asbestos is safe is the way to save the industry.

‘And this argument carries on today – except that now it is being played out in countries like China and India, the main reason being that there is still money to be made.’

And there is also big money to be lost: lawsuits in the US by sickened mechanics against the auto giants who incorporated asbestos into brake pads would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars if successful. 

‘Defendant corporations like GM and Chrysler have gone to extraordinary lengths to reshape the scientific literature to defend these cases, debasing and contaminating the research and public health policies that have to be based on science,’ says Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has testified before the US Environmental Protection Agency regarding the hazards of asbestos. ‘Vested interests essentially hired scientists to create controversy where there wasn’t any.’

The story is an old one: industry-funded scientists will ‘manufacture doubt’ for vested interests seeking to avoid losing (or keep making) money: tobacco companies did it with second-hand smoke, oil companies with climate change, and the asbestos industry with mesothelioma. For example, just as tobacco giants will label ‘light’ cigarettes as ‘less harmful’, the asbestos industry will brand white asbestos as ‘safer’. 

Cynically, almost comically, the Chrysotile Institute will use the same language as the scientists and medical professionals who oppose its use: ‘Vested interests in the anti-asbestos lobby have deliberately used outdated science and confusion between the different fibres to advocate for a total ban on all asbestos products … The great asbestos scam is based on deliberate confusion

‘This misinformation is absurd, and it kills people,’ says Kathleen Ruff, Senior Advisor on Human Rights to the Rideau Institute in Ottawa. Even more absurd, she points out, is the fact that the Chrysotile Institute has been funded with tax dollars by the Canadian Government for the past twenty years, to the tune of $20 million. ‘Our Government should not be funding this manipulation of science – Canadian scientists should stand up because this is scientifically indefensible as well as morally indefensible.’

And increasingly they are. In January the professor emeritus of public health at the Université Laval, Québec, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling for an end to the ‘perversion of scientific information’. This August the Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution with a 95 per cent vote pushing for the Canadian Government to stop mining and exporting asbestos – and to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute. And last week a Quebec doctor wrote in La Presse that the Government’s actions are paramount to criminal negligence

‘This is a real example of how we have to safeguard science and not allowed it to be abused,’ says Ruff.
But more than that, we need to each of us be more aware of the potential for science to be abused, to have the basic scientific literacy to understand how it can be abused – and to take the initiative to protect those who can’t.

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