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A lethal injection

The Quebec government in Canada has given a life-saving injection to a bankrupt mine so it may continue producing one of the most dangerous and carcinogenic substances ever known.

The Jeffrey mine, one of two remaining mines in the country, has been given a $3.5 million line of credit by the Quebec government to allow it to operate for a month – long enough to attract crucial investors from London and India, who are touring the mines now, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Though Canada restricts white asbestos – also called chrysotile – it was the world’s fifth largest producer in 2009, mining 153,000 metric tonnes of the material. More than 95 per cent of this was exported, primarily to Indonesia, China, Mexico, and other fast developing nations in the Global South. In such nations the mineral apparently can be used ‘safely’ though it is tightly restricted in developed nations, and banned outright in over 50 countries (including the entire European Union).

As sales of the mineral declined in Europe and North America, producers shifted their attention to developing nations, such as Mexico and China. Now sales in the West are nonexistent, but business in the developing world is booming – Indian imports of the mineral have risen 83 per cent since 2004.
Documentation of construction workers wearing handkerchiefs and hauling sacks with their bare hands can be seen freely online in the CBC documentary, ‘Canada’s Ugly Secret.

Health officials describe India as fostering a ‘ticking time bomb’ of cancer, set to explode later this century (just as Western nations are still dealing with one).

Though an extremely useful material – once considered a miracle substance – handy for such applications as insulation, electrical resistance, and reinforcing cement, the wispy fibres of every form of asbestos are notoriously carcinogenic. More than 100,000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases, it is responsible for one in three occupational cancers, according to the World Health Organization, and 120 million people are still exposed every day in the workplace.

Death from mesothelioma, an incurable cancer in the lining of the lungs, is slow, intractable, and incredibly painful. Every other form of the deadly mineral is banned worldwide altogether – only one form remains in use: chrysotile, or white asbestos. It is classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for the Research of Cancer, yet promoted as ‘safe for use under controlled circumstances’ by its producers – most notably the Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal, Canada, which has been funded by Canadian tax monies to the tune of $20 million for the past quarter century, according to an investigation by the Centre for Public Integrity. In turn, the Chrysotile Institute provides funds to the Indian lobby group the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, which promotes asbestos as entirely safe.

Though Canada remains a small producer of the mineral on a global scale – Russia is both the largest producer and consumer, followed closely by China – its role is utterly integral to the continued survival of the global trade.

Canadian support provides legitimacy to a lethal product, as documented by the New Internationalist a year ago.

Canadian lobby groups have been integral in blocking the addition of white asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a UN-kept list of hazardous substances. The Canadian Medical Association Journal has lambasted this as a ‘shameful political manipulation of science’ and Kathleen Ruff, Senior Advisor on Human Rights to the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, says: ‘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.’

Though Canadian global influence is considerable, the domestic industry is marginal – unnoticed by most Canadians. Just two mines remain, both of them in Quebec. Struggling to survive, the Jeffrey mine – once one of the largest asbestos mines in the world – is gasping for breath.

The end of the Canadian asbestos industry seemed certain two months ago – Bernard Coloumbe, owner of the mine, declared the mine would only be able to stay open with a $58 million loan. The Quebec Medical Association – for the first time in history – joined the Canadian Medical Association in calling for the government to stop funding the mine and the Chrysotile Institute with federal cash and to put an end to Canadian asbestos mining and export.

Public demonstrations on 1 July (to mark Canada Day) by asbestosis victim support networks in Australia and Asia demanded that the mines be shut.

The Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia issued a press release on 16 August expressing relief over the news that the mine seemed certain to close, declaring: ‘For the Canadian authorities to even consider in this day and age subsidizing the export of death for the sake of about 200 Canadian jobs is just appalling.’

Two days later the Asia Regional Conference on Asbestos, Jakarta, issued a similar statement, demanding that the exports cease and adding: ‘Canada portrays itself as a defender of human rights, while continuing to export deadly chrysotile asbestos to Asia.’

Yet now it is an entirely different story: investors from India and London are touring the Jeffrey Mine, being courted for the necessary funds to reopen the mine and breathe life back into a dying, and deadly, industry. The Canadian Cancer Society calls this ‘deplorable’.

Do you agree? Sign the petition asking Canada to end the trade in asbestos.

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