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Deadly dust
Kyla E Sentes exposes the sinister machinations designed to protect Canada's trade in asbestos - a mineral that claimed the life of her own father.

In June 2001 Canada’s Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, made a phone call to Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos regarding the country’s plans to ban asbestos. The call was not to congratulate the President. Rather, Chrétien suggested that Chile was being undemocratic. He encouraged the Chileans to re-examine the science used to reach their decision, as they had clearly been misinformed.

Chrétien followed the official line that Canadian asbestos – ‘white’ chrysotile, like that exported to Chile – is safe. Sounding much like a press release from the Quebec-based, industry-funded Asbestos Institute, the Canadian Government has been suggesting that chrysotile, which has been mined and used in Canada for nearly a century, is a ‘new and safe’ form of asbestos. However, they omit to tell the public exactly where they’ve found the scientific evidence to back up such assertions. The reason we are never shown this documentation is simple: it doesn’t exist.

Just try telling the thousands of workers who used Canadian asbestos during the past hundred years that chrysotile is safe. You’ll have little luck finding many of them because they are already dead, thanks to this ‘new and safe’ asbestos. Among them was my father.

A professor of political science and a longtime social activist, he had been exposed to the carcinogenic fiber during the 1960s when he worked as an asbestos insulator. By the 1970s asbestosis, a chronic, progressive pulmonary fibrosis in which the lungs are scarred to the point of incapacitation, began to take hold of his body. It dramatically changed the direction of his life. He spent his remaining years trying to ensure that no other workers would ever have to suffer the same ravages.

Ray fought inexhaustibly against successive Canadian governments’ pro-asbestos policies, exporting death sentences to asbestos workers and their families in the South. It was an uphill battle, against both the Government and the disease that was consuming his body. The latter was a fight he could not win. On 13 April 2000 Ray died after a 25-year battle – but not without optimism. One reason for this was the landmark decision by the World Trade Organization, earlier that year, that France should be allowed to ban the import and use of asbestos.

Asbestos is a word that has lost much of the meaning it once held for Canadians. Within our own country we have essentially prohibited its sale, use and manufacture. The ‘magic mineral’ has faded from our collective memory. We have forgotten how prevalent it once was in brake linings, cement sheets, flooring, tiles, packing and textiles. We have also forgotten about asbestosis, mesothelioma (a deadly and incurable form of cancer which gives its victims between 6 and 24 months to live) and various other types of cancers including throat, oesophagal, laryngeal, kidney, stomach and colorectal.

Ask the average Canadian what they know and you will likely hear something along the lines of: ‘That stuff will kill you. It causes cancer. That’s why we don’t use it any more.’ Exactly. Chrysotile asbestos, still heavily mined in Quebec, isn’t used precisely because it kills. It will continue to kill those Canadians exposed to it in the past as well as those who handle it today. What most Canadians aren’t aware of is that our Federal Government, in partnership with the Province of Quebec and its asbestos industry, is peddling the deadly dust abroad.

The close ties between the Canadian Government and the asbestos industry are well documented. They share a history of concealing information about the health hazards of asbestos for nearly a century. Their partnership continued well into the 1980s after the public had become wary of the dangers to human health. In 1984 they founded the Asbestos Institute, a pro-asbestos ‘think tank’, which over the years has received millions of dollars of funding from the Federal Government.

The Provincial Government of Quebec has continually bailed out the dying industry with public money and assisted in launching global campaigns to promote asbestos overseas. Their target is usually the developing countries of Latin America, Africa and, most recently, Asia. The Canadian Government has no qualms about exporting the deadly fiber to countries where life expectancy is low, so the latent characteristics of diseases won’t be so visible.

It’s become a contest between the governments of Canada and Quebec to see who can best protect 1,600 Quebec jobs – which could have been transferred to other sectors decades ago. The thousands – and possibly millions – of workers who will die in the process are apparently just casualties of war.

By the late 1990s a growing trend towards banning the import and use of asbestos emerged in the European Union. For decades the French Government had been one of Europe’s greatest asbestos boosters and a close ally of Canada. However, awareness was spreading and public mobilization against the use of the substance began to grow. The National Institute for Scientific and Medical Research (INSERM) reported that asbestos would cause 750 cases of mesothelioma and 1,200 cases of lung cancer in France in 1996 alone. The French Government realized it could no longer ignore the issue.

How on earth can countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines, with virtually no controls, be expected to use the substance with any degree of safety?

In 1996 the Minister of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, Jacques Barrot, announced that France would be implementing a ban prohibiting the production, import, and sale of all asbestos-containing products, effective from 1 January 1997. Canada was losing an important ally and took action in the most effective way it knew how: through the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution process.

Canada filed its case against France on the grounds that the ban violated the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. In confidential briefs submitted to the Dispute Settlement Board (DSB) panel Canada cited a number of reasons why asbestos should not be banned. The most curious was ‘controlled use’. The Canadian Government and their ‘impartial’ Asbestos Institute experts claimed that under regulated conditions asbestos could be used without posing any risk to human health. Yet in even the most stringently regulated conditions, like those in Canada and the US, workers continue to be exposed to deadly fibers and fall victim to asbestosis and mesothelioma. If workers are dying from exposure even here, imagine what conditions must be like in nations lacking even the bare minimum of regulatory mechanisms. It’s precisely these countries to which Canada is exporting its ‘magic mineral’.

Time and time again those who have visited asbestos-manufacturing plants in the South return with stories of horrific working conditions. A 1980s exposé of Thailand – one of Canada’s key markets – revealed employees who spend their days in clouds of dust without respirators. They split open bags of asbestos with their bare hands. They walk home to their families covered in layers of dust. In India, both women and children were found working with asbestos. Many importing countries like Turkey, the Philippines and Singapore have such repressive regimes that anyone who raises concerns may find themselves out of a job or in trouble with the police. ‘Controlled use’ doesn’t offer much protection to workers here.

Neither does Canada’s suggestion that the industry should monitor its customers and refuse a sale if safety procedures are not followed, provide much comfort. There is simply no precedent for an industry refusing to sell its product to paying customers. Twenty years ago the Canadian Government was already claiming that safe-use policies were being followed. Obviously the monitoring failed – the evidence of asbestos-related injuries and deaths in the South tells a very different story.

Yet, despite such spurious claims and an attempt to prevent anti-asbestos voices from being heard at the WTO, the DSB panel (consisting primarily of economists) ruled in favour of public health. They felt that asbestos was not a negligible risk, but a dramatic and well-documented one – the evidence warranted the ban.

Canada’s complaint against France made very little sense. France had been phasing out the use of asbestos for several years and had begun its removal from public buildings in the early 1990s. Canada had not been exporting significant amounts to France for several years. In fact, France is a significant importer of Canadian cellulose, the substitute for asbestos. So how could a French ban possibly pose any kind of economic threat to the Canadian asbestos industry? Certainly not one worthy of convening a WTO tribunal. The answer lies in the message that the French ban sent to the rest of the world, specifically to those poorly regulated economies which are on the receiving end of most Canadian exports.

If an industrialized country, with all its advanced technology and safety mechanisms, feels the product is unsafe, how on earth can countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines, with virtually no controls, be expected to use the substance with any degree of safety? The credibility of the official Canadian line is starting to fall apart. This message has clearly been received by many nations around the world. In recent months Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Spain have all moved towards banning the substance.

Kyla E Sentes is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. An anti-asbestos activist, she is working on the completion of her father's manuscript on the history of Canadian asbestos.

Yet Canada persists in its promotion of asbestos and has vowed to seek out new markets for the deadly fiber. One can only hope that the message is heard and understood: the Canadian Government is not selling development, but death sentences in the form of a ‘magic mineral.’

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