Tuesday, October 21, 2008

While we fuss about lead and melamine from China...

...we continue to export a known poison to "developing countries" that causes deadly and painful cancers, mesothelioma in particular. That poison is asbestos, from two mines in Quebec, 97% of which is sent to nations like India, Pakistan and Indonesia for use in cement production. We no longer use it at home: it is subject, in fact, to stringent handling and environmental regulations. But that doesn't help Quebeckers, who have one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. And it doesn't help workers in the Third World who are forced to handle the material without benefit of regulation or protective work-gear.

It's an industry that, like its many victims, is dying. Only 700 people are employed on a half-time basis in Thetford, Quebec, where the mines operate. The workers have no respirators or dust-masks: the employers claim that the type of asbestos now being mined--chrysotile--is low-risk for them. Health Canada, now sitting on a study of its health effects, makes similar claims, conceding, however, that it is dangerous and that reduced exposure is the key:

Although it is established that chrysotile has significant serious health effects associated with it, the consistent and inexorable pursuit of reducing exposure to this substance, where possible, will be effective in reducing adverse health effects.

The Harper government, continuing the ignoble tradition of its predecessors, has been fighting for the right to send this toxic material abroad, where there are few or no occupational health and safety regulations governing its use. Nearly every developed country now bans asbestos, and with good reason: the World Health Organization estimates that 100,000 people die annually from asbestos-related causes.

The Canadian labour movement has played its own dubious role in continuing the production of this material, regularly deep-sixing anti-asbestos resolutions at the Canadian Labour Congress under pressure from the Quebec Federation of Labour and the powerful Steelworkers who represent the miners. The CLC finally passed one this May after three decades of silence, despite a call this past February from the QFL to delay calling for a ban until that Health Canada study is released.* But, to the undoubted embarrassment of CLC President Ken Georgetti, who has been forthright on this issue, the QFL has recently managed to persuade the CLC Executive Committee to delay calling for a ban until that Health Canada study is released.(This may never happen: it appears that there is a blockage--in Stephen Harper's office.) The May resolution called for an outright ban, with transition measures for Quebec workers.

And this is despite a A plea for solidarity from the All-India Trade Union Congress asking the CLC to help stop the export of this "major killer," not to mention outrage much closer to home, had finally been acknowledged. For the House of Labour, the jobs of seven hundred part-time workers in Quebec , it seems, will no longer trump the lives of untold numbers of brown people in another land.

At the UN, Canada has joined with Iran and Zimbabwe to oppose listing chrysotile as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention. That listing doesn't mean a ban--it only requires that importing countries be made aware of the dangers of the substance, so that they can give informed consent to its importation. Even that feeble hand-wave, however, is too much for the Canadian asbestos barons, politicos, bureaucrats and Quebec labour leaders to tolerate.

But push may finally have come to shove. Canada has just come under unprecedented national and international attack by the medical profession. In an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, our government is likened to arms dealers operating below the radar. The authors don't mince words:

For Canada to export asbestos to poor countries that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable. But to descend several steps further to suppress the results of an expert committee, pour millions of dollars into an institute that shills for the industry and oppose even the Rotterdam Convention's simple rule of politeness is inexcusable.

Two international journals have entered the fray as well. The U.S. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine says that the Harper government's position--that asbestos can be safely exported to developing countries--"should be truly embarrassing to the Canadian government and people." The British Annals of Occupational Hygiene accuses the Canadian government of deliberate suppression of the Health Canada report, the contents of which could prove embarrassing as Canada once again opposes adding chrysotile to the Rotterdam Convention list during meetings in Rome to take place next week.

Dr. Trevor Ogden, a British doctor who chaired the Committee that submitted the report, is blunt: Health Canada's claims that they are still "reviewing" the 4,000-word report is nothing short of an outright lie. "If we'd known that the government (was) going to labour through the report at a rate of 20 words a day we would have put in a few jokes to entertain them," he said.

But this is no laughing matter.
The PMO has blocked the release of a report by experts that exposes the health dangers of chrysotile asbestos. Complaisant bureaucrats, only following orders, are "carefully reviewing the contents" of that 16-page report submitted months ago, and others are "continuing internal consultations" on the upcoming meetings in Rome. The mine operators are making money, exporting 200,000 tons of poison annually to the Third World. Health Minister Tony Clement won't return calls.

In collaboration, they're deliberately killing people for profit. In our name.

UPDATE: (October 29) As reported in the Globe and Mail yesterday, Canada found proxies (our customers) to do our dirty work: this week's Rotterdam Convention meeting failed to place chrysotile asbestos on the dangerous substances list. The next opportunity will be two years from now--and goodness knows how many more painful deaths.

The head of the pro-asbestos Chrysotile Institute, Clément Godbout, will be commenting at the end of the week. Godbout is a former president of the FTQ (1993-1998).

*Changes in bold, and struck text, reflect the fact that the May resolution by the CLC called directly for a ban, and the CLC's wishes were accordingly conveyed to the government in advance of the Rotterdam Convention meeting. The FTQ call in February for a delay was overridden by the CLC, in other words, at its 2008 Convention. My apologies for missing this in an earlier version of this post.

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