Thursday, April 16, 2009

Health Canada, asbestos and the accountability issue

Whether it's bovine growth hormone or deadly asbestos, Health Canada always seems to be on the side of the big battalions. In the former case, its own scientists who questioned its approval were harassed and fired, and only a heavy lobby killed the release of this hormone into our cattle--and ultimately into our milk.

Now, with a successful Access to Information request by CanWest, a sixteen-page report on asbestos that Health Canada sat on for more than a year is finally available to the public. It links chrysotile asbestos, the supposed "safe" variety of the mineral that we export to Third World countries, to lung cancer and
the painful and deadly mesothelioma. As Leslie Stayner, a public health expert, noted:

The most important thing is what [the report] doesn't say, which is [what] some people have alleged it would say. What it doesn't say is that exposure to chrysotile asbestos is safe. I think the bottom line here is that all forms of asbestos cause both mesothelioma and lung cancer.

The panel that put together the report included an advocate for the asbestos industry, David Bernstein. But it didn't come up with the report that the Harper government wanted and expected. Thanks to the corporate media, in other words, and not to Health Canada, Canada's continued poisoning of Third World workers with asbestos has just taken another hit. That's painfully ironic from a progressive standpoint.

In this case, the pressure apparently came directly from Stephen Harper's office, according to an uncharacteristically strong editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. But in general, the public policy question is this: to what extent can government departments resist corporate and political interference in their mandate to serve the public? In the case of Health Canada, whose name is beginning to sound positively Orwellian,
the answer is--not much.

Government departments, as institutions of governance, are accountable first and foremost to the government itself, and not to the public. They cannot, in other words, effectively serve two masters. Government departments are not arms-length agencies, and indeed they should not be statutorily independent of government.

Stronger whistle-blowing legislation with a clear role for bargaining agents--missing in the current Accountability Act--would help to safeguard the public interest, as a kind of safety-valve. But in the case at hand, in which the department has clearly been given its marching orders by the PMO, no such legislation would apply.

We aren't dealing here solely with amoral bureaucrats, in other words, but with an immoral government. The solution to this is ultimately political, not institutional. Unfortunately, given former human rights advocate Michael Ignatieff's flip-flop on this issue, that solution won't be coming any time soon. And meanwhile, workers in Third World countries where safety standards are a joke will continue to die agonizing deaths at our hands.

[Note: I've blogged about asbestos before. For those interested, the Ottawa Citizen has amassed a veritable archive of background information on its hazards.]


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