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The Gazette’s View: Human cost of asbestos is not worth the jobs

For the sake of hundreds of jobs, $90 million a year in sales and our prime minister’s refusal to be wrong about anything, Canada is now the world’s only developed nation to not formally acknowledge chrysotile asbestos as a carcinogen

29.06.2011 |Montreal Gazette

Canada itself bans the use of asbestos in construction. So serious is it about this ban that when it drew up plans to repair parliamentary buildings in Ottawa, it budgeted millions of dollars to rid them of asbestos. So when Canada’s representatives last week rejected medically accepted fact – exposure to asbestos can cause cancer – it took a stance that was beyond hypocritical. It was perverse.

Unfortunately for the unprotected workers in poor countries who will continue to be exposed to asbestos, when it refused to acknowledge asbestos’s danger, Canada single-handedly blocked its inclusion under the Rotterdam Convention. The convention, a United Nations treaty which was debated at a June 20-24 conference in Geneva, is governed by consensus.

What makes Canada’s action even more shameful is that listing asbestos as a carcinogen with the convention would not bar us from exporting it. The convention is designed to be informative. It does not ban substances. Listing a substance as a hazardous product requires that countries importing it be informed by the exporting country ahead of time what hazards exist. Information on safe handling and proper precautionary measures has to be included and the importer has to sign prior consent.

The Harper government has rejected this informative step, on the grounds that Canada has “actively promoted safe and controlled use of the substance domestically and internationally.” This is nonsense. Not only does Canada itself no longer permit its use but, as Liberal MP Marc Garneau has pointed out, using asbestos in such a way as to not accidentally breathe in the fibres requires complex equipment and intensive training. Developing countries – the only buyers for asbestos in today’s market – tend not to have the equipment or the expertise to handle such a deadly substance safely.

Recognizing its danger, few countries produce asbestos. Canada is one. The others are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. These three countries are relatively poor, with Gross Domestic Products that hover around $100 billion.

Canada, on the other hand, is a G8 member. It can’t argue that without the money from asbestos, the country’s, or even Quebec’s, economy would be in trouble. Canada’s GDP in 2010 was more than $1.7 trillion. Next to that figure, annual sales of $90 million from the country’s one asbestos mine is peanuts.

Including asbestos as a dangerous substance with the Rotterdam Convention could have turned the tide on a product that should no longer be mined or used. In 2008, at an earlier convention conference, Canada was able to stand by, silently although innocently, while India lobbied to keep asbestos off the list of health hazards. India was Canada’s primary asbestos trading partner, accounting for nearly half of the more than 150,000 tonnes of asbestos Canada has exported annually in 2008 and 2009.

This year, however, India changed its mind, announcing at the Geneva conference that it was now in favour of putting asbestos on the list of hazardous products.

Countries such as Ukraine and Vietnam followed India’s lead, leaving Canada alone. Left on its own, Canada went ahead and unilaterally blocked the listing. Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan reversed course, following Canada.

So now more construction workers will be exposed to the lethal fibres of asbestos. Thirty years ago, former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl was inadvertently exposed to asbestos. He has recovered from a form of lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure. This week, Strahl called on the Harper government to add asbestos to the United Nations list.

Handle with care; that’s all Canada needs to tell its customers about a deadly substance it insists on selling on the open market. That is the very least Canada should do. The moral choice is to not sell it at all.

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