Quote ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ aptly suits Canada’s asbestos exports and its support for asbestos industry in developing countries. Canada is a country of ten provinces and three territories out of which only Quebec has asbestos mines. Quebec was the world’s first province to start a commercial mine in 1879 whose mines are still operational today. 97% of their production is exported to developing countries. Canadian citizens want asbestos banned due to its cancer causing factors but the government is dragging its feet on the policy. Within the country if closing these mines cost 500 jobs, within the rest of the developing world it means saving lives of thousands of poor workers. This paper will try to explore the Canadian government stance on the asbestos industry and its global environmental concerns.
Quebec is the largest province in Canada whose main industries are Agriculture, manufacturing, energy, mining, forestry, and transportation (Quebec Facts, 2012). The South-eastern area of the province has abundance of asbestos deposits. Asbestos is mined because it is a valuable material for flexibility, fire retarding qualities and insulation. It is widely used in industries and in home construction. But its production processes are affecting millions who work in the mines as well as in the production units. The process from the mine involves extraction, packing and transporting of this porous material. It is processed and made into insulating sheets, used as an additive in cement for roof and walls, in fire retardant material production and many other purposes. It is called the ‘magic material’ because it is flexible, inter-changeable into other forms and is cheap to produce while reaping good revenue (Department of Environment, 2012).
During 20th century asbestos was used extensively without much concern for its safety. Those who work in close proximity with asbestos suffer by the fine particle deposits in the inner linings of lungs, abdomen and hearts. Exposure to asbestos is the single known cause for a rare type of cancer called malignant mesothelioma (World Asbestos Mining, 2013). According to Health Canada, health risks caused by asbestos depend on the concentration of fibers in the air, length of exposure time, frequency of exposure, size of fibers inhaled and amount of time since first exposure (Suman Gupta, 2013). The long latency of the disease in lung cancer and widely researched but not clinically proven fact of cause of lung cancer are two major reasons for this product being in the market for long. Even though asbestos is removed or banned from commercial production in some countries, its presence in residential construction continues exposure to the risk of cancer. Once accumulated these particles cannot be taken out of the body, like that of tobacco and cause slow death. International Labor Organization says about 100,000 workers die each year from an asbestos-related disease (Mesothelioma and Asbestos worldwide, 2012).
According to Dr. Paul A Demers, Occupational Cancer Research Center, Ontario, there are 500 mesothelioma diagnosed cases each year in Canada. The occupations which are at greatest risk are specialty trade contractors and those in building construction. Several countries have banned production of asbestos and closed their mines but not Canada. It is the only G8 country which exports asbestos. Its production is 150,000 metric tons per annum (2009 estimates, US Geological Survey Mineral resource program) and 500 workers involve in this trade. Domestic use of asbestos is prohibited within Canada and 97% of the production is exported. Countries which import Canadian asbestos are Indonesia and India. In these developing nations the Canadian asbestos is broken into smaller pieces, ground into powder and repackaged to be used within the country. Thousands of workers who work in the highly unsafe environments are exposed to this material on a daily basis. These lowly paid workers do not use any protective devices not are aware of the hazards of exposure. For long Canada refused to recognize the asbestos as hazardous material due to export revenues and highly funded industrialist’s lobby. What Canada is promoting to these workers is not only the material but also the carcinogen.
In the 2012 Canadian government granted 58 billion dollar loan to reopen one of the mines in Quebec generating huge controversy. With the change in leadership in the provincial elections, Premier Pauline Marois cancelled the loan and promised to support asbestos dependent families. In 2006 as well as in 2011 Canada moved to block the listing of chrysotile asbestos as hazardous product in the UN Rotterdam Convention. There are scores of governmental media reports which claim that the controlled use of asbestos is permissible and there is even an institute which promotes asbestos use. The revenue from asbestos export was $800 million in 1984 but drastically dropped in the recent past and there is a huge misinformation campaign from industrial lobby to prove that asbestos is safe. Though asbestos as a carcinogen has been proven by the WHO and Canada refuses to bend to the international pressure. In the recent past Canadian citizens, non -governmental organizations and people’s groups have vociferously rallied for banning asbestos and its mines. Termed as hypocrisy, world media negates Canada’s stance as dangerous to its domestic as well as world citizens.
As global citizens there are several environmental issues which matter to us. Most of the natural hazards are not within the reach of mankind but human made errors are preventable, like Canadian asbestos production and export. Knowingly one cannot shy away from the responsibility of a sustainable solution. For the sake of 500 jobs and revenue marred by the blood, sweat and tears of poor workers Canada cannot continue to remain the oppressor. I wish to take this issue to the world by advocating a web site called www.avaaz.org which gives voice to many such problems. There is a petition one can sign online by expressing solidarity to the cause. The petition will reach the premier of Canada to take positive action necessary. There is evidence in this web site whose petitions have reached solutions world over.
Cancer is caused by many other products like tobacco, drug abuse or alcohol consumption. While these are personal habits other causes like asbestos inhalation and ingestion could be prevented. I will take this problem to the social networking websites like Twitter, Face book and promote its awareness. A known and absolutely removable cause gives hope to its prevention. After all ‘prevention is better than cure’.
Quebec Facts, 2012. Canada Online. Available at http://canadaonline.about.com/cs/provinces/p/quebecfacts.htm.
World Asbestos Mining – an Overview, Oct 23rd, 2013. MBendi Information Services. Available at http://www.mbendi.com/indy/ming/asbs/p0005.htm.
Suman Gupta, 2013. Canada’s Asbestos Policy. Economic s trump Global health concerns. Available at: http://www.alive.com/articles/view/23459/canadas_asbestos_policy.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos Worldwide, 2012. Asbestos.com. Available at: http://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/related-issues.php.
Paul A Demers, 2013. Asbestos Exposure and the Burden of Asbestos-related Disease in Canada. Available at: http://www.cmfonline.org/sites/default/files/Sept%2027%20Asb%20presentation%20-%20Demers.pdf.