Photo: Who's keeping the Canadian asbestos industry alive?

Credit: jasleen_kaur via Flickr

By Dr. Kapil Khatter

The Canadian chrysotile asbestos industry has been finding it tough lately to sell the whole exporting death thing. I guess it shouldn't be surprising. Who wants to buy a toxic, cancer-causing product? The industry works hard to promote chrysotile as a safer asbestos, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization remind us that all types of asbestos are cancer-causing and harmful when inhaled. Canadians seem to have heard that message, as Canadian asbestos is rarely used here.

Still, there is demand for asbestos elsewhere, especially in poorer countries. India is Canada's best customer, and we also ship tonnes of asbestos to countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. Why? Because asbestos is useful. Heat- and chemical-resistant, it is used in brake pads, vinyl flooring, and construction materials. Asbestos is also cheap.

But how does a developed country like Canada, with its developed-country wages, compete in an asbestos market dominated by less-developed countries? The number of Canadian mines and miners has dwindled. Quebec's Jeffrey Mine has filed for bankruptcy protection. How does what's left of the industry keep going?

A little help from our friends

The Canadian asbestos industry, it appears, is getting a lot of help from its friends. According to federal government documents obtained through access to information requests, asbestos prices are kept artificially high in order to keep Canada in business. The documents, quoted in the Globe & Mail, claim that other asbestos exporting countries could undercut Canada but allow the Canadian industry to survive for its "leadership and credibility in promoting the safe use of chrysotile."

The industry has a large group of friends at home as well: you, me, and the rest of Canadian taxpayers. Our federal government gives the Chrysotile Institute, the industry's lobby group, $250,000 in public funds every year to promote the sale of asbestos and its "controlled use." More than $20 million has been handed to the institute since 1984.

And now the owner of the Jeffrey Mine, one of the two remaining Canadian mines, is asking for a loan guarantee of $58 million to allow the company to extract 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year. The Quebec government is deciding whether to guarantee the loan to keep the Jeffrey Mine in operation now that new investors have been found.

Government lobbying

But it's not just financial aid that helps keep Canadian asbestos shipping. The federal government uses its political capital to protect and promote the asbestos trade. In 1999, Canada challenged France's ban on asbestos and asbestos-containing products at the World Trade Organization, but lost, then lost again on appeal. Both decisions found chrysotile asbestos to be a dangerous, cancer-causing substance that France had the right to ban for health reasons.

At the international Strategic Approach to Integrated Chemicals Management negotiations, Canada made the protection of asbestos exportation its main priority. Adopted in 2006, the agreement called for the phasing out of harmful chemicals by the year 2020. The Canadian delegation didn't think this should apply to asbestos. The Natural Resources Canada lawyer appointed to the delegation had a mission to protect Canada's chrysotile exports. Even American delegates, obviously intent on weakening the agreement, shook their heads at Canada's stubborn defence of asbestos.

In autumn 2008, Canada also blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention, which only requires exporting countries to notify importing countries when a potentially dangerous substance is being sold to them. Canadian officials teamed up with other exporting and importing countries to prevent even that toothless measure.

The Canadian asbestos industry has friends, of course, in the countries it exports to. While governments like India's provide cover by denying asbestos is dangerous, importers and manufacturers agree to the "controlled use" of Canadian asbestos, then recklessly expose Indian workers, providing no safety equipment. Many workers report never being told of the risks of working with asbestos. When workers are told, they sometimes have to choose between an unsafe job and no job at all.

A tipping point

Even with all this help, the Canadian asbestos industry remains fragile. Recent criticism from public health physicians in Quebec and from high-profile health organizations have made Canadians more aware of our asbestos hypocrisy. Canadian Cancer Society affirms that all forms of asbestos cause cancer. The Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution calling for a ban on the sale and export of asbestos. The argument that asbestos can be used safely has been debunked by expert opinion and media investigation.

Efforts continue to get the federal government to end funding for the Chrysotile Institute, to keep the Quebec government from guaranteeing the Jeffrey Mine loan and to stop Canadian asbestos mining and export. Unions and other Ban Asbestos Canada organizations are also working toward a just transition for asbestos workers to other paid jobs.

You can help. Write letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Jean Charest asking them to ban Canadian asbestos. Your letters can help prevent cancer and other asbestos-related disease.

To read what The Lancet, the world's leading medical journal, has to say about Canada's asbestos industry, download this PDF.


Dr. Kapil Khatter is a family physician in Ottawa and President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (a member of Ban Asbestos Canada). He was a founding board member of Health Care Without Harm and sits on the federal government's Environmental Assessment Working Group, which looks at pharmaceutical and cosmetic ingredients in the environment. Dr. Khatter completed his medical training at McGill University and has a master's degree in environmental studies from York University.

December 8, 2010

Post a comment


Jun 02, 2013
5:02 PM

What has the foundation or green peace done to bring about publicity concerning the environmental and human impact of the open pit Asbestos mines that have been closed down the place is covered in Asbestos people ride their Atv’s and dirt bikes and camp close to these area’s infecting themselves and their family’s if these mines are on crown land and the mining lease is finished then the land reverts to the crown! This makes them responsible to protect the public from infection from the toxic material left behind. They have a fiduciary duty to do so.

Jan 22, 2012
3:03 PM

Given the evidence, I would think there might be a basis for charges via the International Criminal Court if the government of Canada persists in denying or negating the scientific evidence and continues to allow asbestos to be exported "as if" a safe product. It boggles the mind>

Nov 29, 2011
3:21 PM

metropaul: remove the tiles and pack them in a box and mail them to your MP

Nov 29, 2011
3:20 PM

Canadians should receive that 20 million back, plus interest (at competitive rates). Close the mine, liquidate it’s assets, seize the assets of its present owners and liquidate those. I want my tax money back and I want the executives and those in government responsible to do life in prison without parole. You can include Stephen Harper among them.

That Asbestos causes cancer is known, there are mountains of data on this. All civilized nations should immediately cease exports of any dangerous products to the developing world. There is no excuse. China, for example, should face heavy penalties for it's rapid construction of coal fired plants. This sort of behaviour is intolerable in the face of rapid climate change. Any defence of this behaviour by third world nations is equally intolerable.

I have a vision for Canada and the world, and it is a positive, peaceful, clean one.

Sep 09, 2011
11:52 AM

many schools and other public buildings across Canada have chrysotile asbestos floor tiling. government agencies assure the public that there is no danger from these tiles, which does appear to be the case. is there an argument as to why these tiles should be removed despite the cost, and the low risk that they pose?

Dec 09, 2010
6:19 AM

See also this article about a delegation of Asia-based asbestos victims, rights activists and trade union representatives who recently visited Montreal: Victims, activists urge Canada to stop asbestos exports

Dec 08, 2010
1:39 PM

Of course, “Keeping prices artificially high to support the Canadian Asbestos industry” also keeps prices high increasing profits for the third world mines and probably increasing wages and improving living conditions for their workers.

It’s awfully hypocritical of us as Canadians to expect less developed and poorer countries to use more expensive materials just because we have some sort of guilt trip over the use of cheaper products.

In India, many families still cook over a fire of burning dung. I wouldn’t want to do it, but does that mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to? In Canada we have used all sorts of unsafe but cheap methods and products to build our nation to prosperity to the point that we can now afford to use safer and more expensive materials. By expecting third world countries to go straight to the most expensive products we are not allowing them to build up the same way that we did.

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