Canadian Journal of Public Health 2010; 101(5):352

Ban All Production and Export of Chrysotile Asbestos

Reprinted with the permission of the Canadian Public Health Association

The disturbing image on the cover of this issue of the Canadian Journal of Public Health shows a child in Indonesia sifting barehanded through a dump littered with asbestos. Two adults with bags – one with the logo of Lab Chrysotile, an asbestos mine in Quebec – are also looking for pieces of chrysotile-containing cement widely used in construction in that country. The pieces of cement can be manipulated and cut by workers wearing no more protection than the villagers in the image, resulting in the release of asbestos fibres and exposure of workers and families alike.

I recently commented on Canada’s shameful practice of chrysotile export to low- and middle-income countries. New developments require a vigorous response from the public health community. An Indian group of investors has offered to save from bankruptcy the Quebec Jeffrey Mine, one of the last producers of chrysotile in Canada. Combined with a loan guarantee by the Quebec government, this may allow the continued export of chrysotile for the next 25 years. This must not come to pass.

Both the Canadian and Quebec governments have been supporting the asbestos industry for decades. The image from Indonesia illustrates why the assertion from the industry that chrysotile can be used safely is a sophism. Countries to which it is exported offer weak or no worker protection. In addition, exposure of the general population, as illustrated here, is likely quite extensive, impossible to document and to prevent and will likely persist for decades. While governments in Canada spend millions to remove asbestos from public buildings, the export of Canadian chrysotile is directly responsible for the deaths and disability of thousands of workers and citizens worldwide. I guess our politicians and the chrysotile industry value lives in Canada and abroad differently.

It is hypocritical to export chrysotile to other countries. The cynicism that our politicians show in the face of the incontrovertible evidence that our export policies will lead directly to the death of innocent victims is disgraceful. This is a challenge for the Canadian public health community. Will we stand up and fight for populations thousands of kilometres away? Will we expend political capital on a fight that has no direct impact on Canadians? We must. Our credibility is at stake here as much as when we take position on any local public health issue. There is an ethical imperative for Public Health Organizations and professionals, and in particular for Quebec’s public health leaders, to become more vocal and active in the fight against chrysotile and to unite behind a common goal of banning production and export of all asbestos.