Sunday, August 17, 2008

Asbestos: Our Secret Shame

Although it appears to have escaped wider attention, Canada has been playing a shameful role on the international scene with regards to the asbestos market. The Rotterdam Convention, adopted in 1998, exists to promote health and protect against the harm caused by certain chemicals and pesticides.
...the Rotterdam Convention gives countries the right to be informed about, and to refuse, extremely hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

After a rigorous scientific and legal process, a panel of experts (the chemical review committee) determines whether a particular chemical is so dangerous that it is a threat to public health and has already been banned or severely restricted by various countries.

If so, the experts call for the chemical to be placed on a list of substances that cannot be exported to another country without first obtaining the "prior informed consent" of that country. This means countries must be informed of the dangers and have the right to refuse the product.

Sounds reasonable, no? But, for the past two years, Canada has been blocking attempts by the committee to place chrysotile asbestos on that list.
Canada has been the world's third biggest exporter of asbestos in the past century. Today, asbestos is a dying industry with one last asbestos company in Quebec and about 700 asbestos miners. Yet, because of its friendly relationship with the asbestos industry and because of its concern over losing votes in Quebec, the government is destroying a convention that is desperately needed to protect people in developing countries from deadly chemicals.

Although some debate exists about the level of carcinogenicity of pure chrysotile asbestos, the Canadian Cancer Society supports the Rotterdam Convention, and has adopted the position that countries importing asbestos from Canada ought to be informed of the potential health hazards. Our opposition to adding asbestos to the PIC list puts us in some distinguished company, along with India, Krygyzstan, Iran, Peru, and the Russian Federation.

Why does our government insist on supporting the asbestos industry at the expense of some of the most impoverished labourers in the developing world? Surely federal money spent on marketing and support of the industry could be better used for retraining our remaining asbestos workers. After the Conservative's much ballyhooed Consumer Products Safety Act, our government's continued support of unfettered asbestos export is nothing short of hypocrisy, and a stain on our international reputation.


MD said...

Its astounding how politicians are always subservient to the industries in their backyard even at the expense of broader human interests. This kind of hypocrisy reminds me of Senator Jesse Helms discovering the value of "engaging" communist countries when he wanted to sell North Carolina tobacco to the smoking youth of Vietnam (which he succeeded in doing, realizing that Asia provided a lucrative antidote to declining North American smoking rates). Its also no coincidence that three of the largest countries which did not sign the Ottawa Treaty for "security reasons" (US, Russia, China) are major manufacturers of land mines.

The problem is that these types of issues are seldom discussed in the media. Ultimately, a civic minded and engaged voting public is the only reason why politicans might choose long term public interest over big industry. I haven't seen much evidence that voters care much about the this sort of hypocrisy.

Red Canuck said...

MD - What surprises me is how such a relatively small industry in this country has so much federal support. I mean, it's not like the auto or oil industries in terms of number of people employed. I didn't check to see how much $$ Canadian asbestos export generates, but presumably it's a lot.

Most Canadians take pride in our reputation as a nation of humanitarians. I think a lot of people would be shocked and disappointed to learn that we are putting the asbestos industry ahead of public health.

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