The federal Conservative government is refusing to join the rest of the developed world in declaring that there are no safe uses for asbestos, even though the material is the top workplace killer in Canada and deaths from exposure are expected to rise.
While such countries as Australia, Japan, Sweden and Britain have imposed a ban on the flame-retardant mineral once widely employed in construction and still used in other applications including brake pads, Canada continues to allow asbestos to be both imported and exported.
No safe use: The Canadian asbestos epidemic that Ottawa is ignoring
Canada’s embrace of the “miracle mineral” has seeded an epidemic of cancers. Yet many Canadians are still exposed to asbestos every day. Don’t look to Ottawa for help — it’s still defending an industry that, like its victims, is wasting away. Read the full story, then share your thoughts in the comments.
The government would not respond directly on Tuesday to a question from the opposition about why the policy has not changed despite overwhelming evidence of the health risks.
A Globe and Mail report on Saturday said the federal government has dragged its feet in protecting this country’s citizens from asbestos’s deadly effects, and that more than 1,200 successful claims for fatality benefits were made in Canada between 2007 and 2012.
Health Canada’s website plays down the causal relationship between asbestos and some types of cancer, while asserting that it is a problem only when its fibres become airborne and “significant quantities” are inhaled.
Pat Martin, a New Democrat MP who worked in asbestos mines when he was young and has been campaigning to have the substance banned in Canada since he was elected 17 years ago, demanded to know why the government is not wavering from its position.
Mr. Martin rose during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons to ask how Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, a medical doctor who has received many letters from people who have lost family members to asbestos-related diseases, could “in all good conscience defend her government’s reprehensible policy on asbestos?”
Ms. Leitch did not respond.
In her place, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford told the House that the government will not oppose the listing of chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention, a United Nations-sponsored treaty that requires the exporters of hazardous substances to disclose the risks.
Between 2006 and 2011, Canada was the only developed nation to object to bringing asbestos under the control of that agreement. It withdrew that objection in 2012, a year after both of Quebec’s asbestos mines were shut down.
Mr. Rickford went on to say the government’s 2013 action plan supports the economic diversification efforts of the Quebec communities of Thetford Mines and Asbestos where asbestos was mined.
“Resource management is the responsibility of the province,” he said.
Repeated questions about the government’s position that were directed this week to Health Minister Rona Ambrose have gone unanswered. Ms. Ambrose’s spokeswoman said Mr. Rickford’s reply to Mr. Martin in the House of Commons was all the government had to say about the matter.
Last month, Health Canada told The Globe in an e-mail that the information on its website “remains accurate,” and that the government has “consistently acted to protect Canadians from the health risks of asbestos.”
Mr. Martin said he was heartened by the interest in the issue that has been fostered by the newspaper’s investigation, and he believes the government is leaving itself vulnerable to criticism, both foreign and domestic, by refusing to alter its stance.
“They are increasingly marginalized among the international trading partners and they are sort of the last man standing in terms of developed nations still supporting and advocating asbestos,” Mr. Martin said. “At least we have guilted them into not actively sabotaging the Rotterdam Convention, which sadly can be seen as great progress.”
With a report from Tavia Grant