White Powder Makes Hypocrites of Both Tories and Grits: Canada Undermines Attempt to Restrict Use of Asbestos

Banning asbestos is a no brainer, right? The versatile, indestructible insulation and construction material was the "miracle substance" of the early 20th century and is now infamous as a cancerous scourge. Most people know asbestos, with its tiny indestructible fibres, is a carcinogen. It is rigidly controlled in Alberta workplaces, and has been virtually removed as a construction building block in Canada. But someone seems to have forgotten to tell the Canadian government.

At an international conference last month, the Canadian government led a charge to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being added to a list of controlled dangerous substances. Chrysotile (or white) asbestos is the most common form of the fibre.

The conference where Canada played such a nefarious role was the most recent gathering of the Rotterdam Convention, an international environmental treaty signed by over 110 countries to regulate the trade and use of certain hazardous substances, such as pesticides and other toxic industrial chemicals.

The purpose of the Rotterdam Convention is quite modest. Passed in 1998, its job is to "promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts" among nations in the area of hazardous chemicals and to "contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous chemicals." It doesn't ban anything; it simply sets up rules to ensure buyers of certain chemicals are aware of the dangers associated with it. It is about the right-to-know.

Apparently even this is too much for Canada. In response to a motion to add white asbestos to the list of restricted substances requiring information-sharing, Canada cried foul. It led a campaign to defeat the motion. Because Rotterdam requires consensus among signing parties to enact a motion, Canada's effort was successful, despite only garnering the support of five other nations - Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Peru, India and Ukraine. The motion was deferred to a future conference. And white asbestos continues to cross borders without control.

Before you trot out your curses of Stephen Harper and his band of terrible Tories, take note that this was the third time Canada has deep-sixed a motion to add white asbestos to the controlled list. The last two times occurred under Liberal governments in 2002 and 2004. In fact, the Liberal government launched a WTO challenge against France in 1997 after it passed a law banning asbestos within its borders.

But if asbestos is so awful - and it is - why is the Canadian government so intent to defend its continued trade? After all, we rarely use the stuff ourselves these days.

The answer lies in the narrow self-interest of a dying, regionally concentrated industry. Canada still mines asbestos - about 250 000 tonnes of the stuff a year. The vast majority of it comes out of three mines in Quebec's Eastern Townships. The Canadian government estimates it is worth about $200 million in trade a year. The industry employs about 1 600 workers in Quebec. Canada holds the dubious honour of being the world's largest exporter of asbestos.

The appalling part is that 96 per cent of what we produce is exported to developing regions such as Africa and SouthEast Asia. We refuse to use asbestos in our own homes and workplaces but happily ship it abroad to countries with lax safety and environmental standards, putting workers and citizens in those countries at risk of cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. In my eyes, this makes us hypocrites.

More than 30 countries have banned asbestos completely, including most of the EU nations. Why? Because they know that over one million people contract asbestos-related disease each year. They know that asbestosis and mesothelioma are among the more painful and vicious cancers. They know that there is no safe way to handle asbestos. And they know there are plenty of safer alternatives available.

What they know is something our government refuses to recognize, namely that asbestos needs to disappear from human activity. We don't need it, and we definitely can't afford to keep using it.

But our government continues to be a pariah on the world stage for its defence of asbestos. It does so because it knows it will pay no political price at home. Who knows about the Rotterdam Convention? Who follows the actions of diplomats at some conference in Europe? Who cares that our hands are coated in a deadly white powder?

They do it because the corporate interests defending asbestos speak louder than Canadian citizens who care about protecting health and environment.

It's not enough to shake our heads and wag our fingers at Tory and Liberal politicians - although that is a good start. We all share in the shame that is our track record on asbestos.

Canadians should be embarrassed and offended by the position our government has taken. But we should also be ashamed we have not spoken more vociferously for an end to such indefensible actions. We should realize we are remiss for not demanding a domestic ban on asbestos in Canada.

I am angry at successive Conservative and Liberal governments for condemning thousands of workers to painful deaths at the hands of Canadian-produced asbestos. And I am hopeful that Canadians will soon awake to this hypocrisy and demand a more ethical approach to this crucial issue.

November 2006
by Jason Foster
AFL Staff

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