Canadian Asbestos Exports

Many people believe that asbestos is a thing of the past and we no longer need to worry about it. Unfortunately this is not the case. All too often there are stories of companies in the UK being fined after asbestos was unearthed during construction work, causing employees and members of the public to be exposed to asbestos.

All forms of asbestos were banned in the UK in 2000 but the material was used so extensively that the effects of exposure to asbestos are set to continue for decades after the ban was put in place.

Over 50 other countries have also put some sort of ban on asbestos but amazingly, many countries still mine, export and use the dangerous material. Although the US banned the used of asbestos in most industries, it is still legally used in some automobile and aircraft brake pads and gaskets. Worryingly, many countries continue to mine and export asbestos, among the top exporters are Russia, Canada and Brazil.

Despite having almost entirely banned the use of asbestos in its own country and having spent millions of dollars removing asbestos from its buildings, Canada remains one of the major exporters of chrysotile or white asbestos. In 2009, 150,000 tonnes of asbestos was shipped from Canada to other countries including Indonesia, India and the Philippines.

There are two locations in Canada where chrysotile is mined and both are in Quebec. The Lab Chrysotile mine at Thetford Mines has almost been exhausted of its asbestos deposits and the Jeffrey pit open mine in a town ironically called Asbestos has operated sporadically over recent years.

The Jeffrey pit mine has been in the news this year as plans have been proposed for an underground mining project that could see 260,000 tonnes of chrysotile produced a year. An international consortium is proposing the conversion of the mine and Quebec’s Government is considering providing a loan guarantee of around $57million so that the project can go ahead. The investment could keep Canada exporting asbestos for the next 25 years.

Canada’s exportation of asbestos has been widely opposed. The Quebec Medical Association, Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Medical Association have branded it as deplorable, shameful and unethical. Canada has been accused of exporting death and of intentionally doing harm by exporting harmful asbestos and not warning the recipient countries of the dangers.

Despite the World Health Organisation stating that all types of asbestos cause cancer, the office of the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources has said that any risks involved with white asbestos can be managed if used in the correct way. One suggestion is to prevent asbestos dust from being released by covering it with another substance, although the question remains how this is done without the worker being exposed during the process.

The consortium looking to open the mine has said that the asbestos will only be sold to manufacturers who use a safe working practice. Furthermore, asbestos sent abroad, half of which would likely go to India, would be sent with pictures explaining how to handle the asbestos in a safe and responsible manner. Believing themselves to be responsible exporters of asbestos, the consortium feel that if they were unable to go ahead with the project, other countries would continue exporting asbestos but without showing how to safely handle the material.

Although the mines have said they only supply companies who have proper, safe working practices in place, a survey conducted by Quebec’s public health agency found that the few industries in Quebec still using asbestos were not handling it safely. In addition to this there are numerous stories and photos showing workers in India and China surrounded by asbestos and wearing no protective clothing or equipment. This is a far cry from President of the Jeffrey asbestos mine, Bernard Coulombe’s assurance that their chrysotile is sold solely to “end users having the same industrial hygiene practices as Canada”.

Asbestos industry scientists have said that white asbestos is nothing more than an occupational health issue. They feel that the dangers are overestimated, chrysotile is not connected to mesothelioma and to stop exporting asbestos is to deny cheap building materials to developing countries.

If you were to believe the asbestos industry experts, you may be forgiven for thinking a lot of fuss has been made over nothing. However, asbestos does cause health problems, including the cancer, mesothelioma and the continued use of asbestos is only serving to prolong the global epidemic of mesothelioma and other asbestos related conditions.

Those opposed to the mine project at Jeffrey asbestos mine have recently staged protests around the world. On Thursday, 9th December 2010, a group demonstrated outside Canada House in Trafalgar Square. Many of the protestors were sufferers of asbestos related conditions or family and friends who had lost loved ones to mesothelioma. Holding banners reading “CANADA EXPORTS CANCER”, “CANADA: AREN’T OUR DEAD ENOUGH?” and “CANADIAN ASBESTOS – BUY NOW, DIE LATER”, the crowd hoped to highlight the issue in Quebec and are looking for a global ban on asbestos in building materials.

It is not just protests trying to stop the financing of the mine. A delegation from Asia has travelled to Quebec to highlight the lack of safe handling procedures and tell people that the asbestos industry’s assurances are false. A member of the delegation who lost her father to mesothelioma feels that the only way to stop asbestos related conditions is to stop using all asbestos, a feeling that is echoed by all those affected by this deadly material.

The UK’s Health & Safety Executive, John Hodgson believes that previous estimates of the risks of health problems from white asbestos were far too conservative and are much higher than was first thought saying that “we can’t say it’s safe”.

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